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For 35 years, Rob Zaleski made a living putting the power of the written word into practice. He met scores of fascinating people and loved telling their stories — mostly as a columnist for The Capital Times in Madison, once a daily afternoon newspaper that in 2008 transitioned to a printed weekly edition with an online presence.
Some who know Rob characterize him as rather cynical at times, but you will not hear a trace of skepticism in his voice when he tells you how his life was recently transformed for the better. All it took was the will to undergo not one, but two hip replacements performed by UW Health’s Dr. Brian Nickel and his team from the Department of Orthopedics and Rehabilitation Medicine.
Now 74, Rob would have never chosen to temper his activity schedule had the increasingly gnawing pain not interfered, especially over the past decade. Always in good physical shape, Rob spent much of his life running, swimming, playing tennis and enjoying plenty rounds of his favorite sport, golf.
Fifteen years ago, he heard a pop in his right hip after hitting one of the best drives of his life on the golf course. X-rays revealed a torn labrum in his right hip socket. Rob’s arthritic hip, he was told, would continue to deteriorate and about five years later, the pain became more noticeable, as was a limp in his walk.
Recovery was much longer 15 years ago
“I looked into hip replacement surgery, but back then the recovery period was 10 to 12 weeks and I was simply not going to give up that much time,” Rob said. “I stopped running but still kept golfing fairly often. I even got to play one of my best rounds on a course where the British Open is held but the pain got worse once I got back.”
Little by little, more of what Rob loved from life was being taken away. Tennis was the next casualty and even routine household chores escaped his reach. A UW Health spine specialist referred Rob to Dr. Nickel in early 2021, when Rob realized that he couldn’t put off hip replacements much longer.
“Dr. Nickel looked at my hip X-rays taken in 2018 and couldn’t believe I was able to still walk. Then, after new X-rays were taken, he said my right hip was one of the worst he had seen. And just for good measure, he said my left hip was not far behind.”
Like any good reporter, Rob did his research before signing up for two hip replacements.
“By 2021, I learned how dramatically things had changed for the better since I first looked into hip replacements about 10 years prior,” Rob said. “Nickel told me that he can never make any guarantees, but he was very confident that each hip should be totally healed in just two months, meaning I would soon get back to the activities I was missing without pain. His confident, reassuring manner was very uplifting and that also made me comfortable going ahead with it.”
Surgery couldn’t have gone more smoothly
In February 2021 at age 73 and still in good shape, Rob underwent the first of his two hip replacements. By all accounts, it could not have gone more smoothly. Rob was home the next day, where he received plenty of help from his wife Cindy and lots of meals from friends and neighbors.
“People were great to us and that means so much in recovery.” Rob said. “After a month, I was already feeling that this would be a life-changer.”
He opted to wait until summer was over to have the second operation. The day of surgery, Rob was anything but nervous laying on the table.
“I remember looking up at Nickel and the whole team as I was about to go under anesthesia,” Rob said. “They were smiling at me saying, ‘Are you ready for this?’ Honestly, I felt excited more than anything.”
Two and a half months after his second hip replacement, Rob’s biggest concern is knowing how tired his wife and friends are from listening to his euphoric spiel about his new, pain-free life.
“When you get to be my age and they can actually do something that gives you your life back after 10 to 15 years of decline, that is truly amazing.” Rob said.
Rob’s praises extend beyond Dr. Nickel to the whole joint replacement team, based at East Madison Hospital.
Pain level is now 'zero'
“People seem to grumble more than ever these days about how service in general has been declining, but honestly, everyone involved with my care at (East Madison Hospital) was on top of their game,” Rob said. “They said they could take my pain away and they delivered. I would give them a 10 in every category except my pain — which I now put at zero.”
A Milwaukee native, published author of two books and father of three grown daughters, Rob looks forward to spending more quality time with his friends and high school sweetheart wife of 52 years, Cindy.
“I’ve got dreams,” Rob said, ranging from getting back on the tennis court to playing basketball with his granddaughter to taking Cindy to one of their favorite vacation spots: Zihuatanejo, Mexico — an oceanside community beautifully described in a memorable scene by Tim Robbins’ character, Andy, in the film “The Shawshank Redemption.”
“I’m just anxious to start re-engaging in life again,” Rob said. “And I’ve told my friends they better be ready to play a lot of golf next year.”
If there is anything Dr. Nickel hopes others might take from Rob’s story, it’s his advice not to believe the persistent myths and misinformation about joint replacement surgery.
“People hear or read things that stem from how joint replacements were performed in the ‘80s or ‘90s,” Nickel said. “Hip and knee surgery really started to advance while I was training at Duke about 10 years ago. Today, patients are usually up walking 3 hours after surgery, and many go home the same day. If they follow through with the physical therapy — both before and after surgery — an overwhelming majority of patients have the same results as Rob.”
Rob may have benefited from being in good physical shape before surgery, Nickel said, but most patients who work hard have a substantial improvement in their quality of life.
“It’s very gratifying to have such a great surgical answer for so many people who suffer from chronic pain,” Nickel said. “It’s almost instant gratification seeing the difference we can make for so many.”
University of Wisconsin Hospitals, part of UW Health, are among the best in the nation in orthopedics, routinely ranked in the top 20 in this specialty (including a No. 15 national ranking in 2021) by U.S. News & World Report. Academia and sub-specialization foster the highest possible care in the region for patients, and outcomes like Rob’s encourage the team to continuously improve for the benefit of all patients.