By Rona Gindin, Editorial Contributor
“You look so young!” friends exclaimed to Helen Pennacchio after her knee replacement surgery.
It’s true, says Pennacchio, who is 74. “I was in so much pain before that my face was strained. My knee was degenerating to bone-on-bone, plus I’m overweight. It was excruciating every time I stood up or sat down.”
Today one might find Pennacchio, with two new knees, gleefully wheeling around her 5-year-old granddaughter, Madelyn, perched on the seat of the walker Pennacchio herself had used post-surgery.
Strained is not normal for Pennacchio. She is a bubbly Mount Dora resident who ran the Broadway Joe’s barber shop in Longwood with her gregarious husband, the namesake Joe, a one-time barber to the Rat Pack in New York City. For 24 years, Pennacchio bustled around the salon and even cooked up a weekly homemade Italian buffet meal for customers. That wound down toward the end.
“I just couldn’t stand up long enough to make the fresh pasta and sauce,” she says.
Two years ago, Joe got cancer and needed full-time caregiving. Helen stepped up to be at his side and ran the shop too, while pushing away thoughts of just how terrible her knee pain was.
A few months after Joe passed, Pennacchio decided she could no longer take the pain and told her longtime orthopedist, Dr. Joseph C. Tutorino with Orlando Health Jewett Orthopedic Institute in Lake Mary, “Let’s do this thing.”
Pennacchio’s procedure was at Orlando Health South Seminole’s Total Joint program, which is part of a systemwide initiative run by the Orlando Health Jewett Orthopedic Institute.
Dr. Tutorino performed the procedure robotically.
“The robot uses 3D CT scan technology to help us position implants in just the right place for each patient, which makes for a better outcome,” Dr. Tutorino says. “We have patients up and walking within an hour or two after surgery.”
Most robots used in knee replacement surgeries help doctors navigate a knee replacement. This one does more. Together, with a CT scan, it helps map out the femur and tibia, and balance the ligaments of the knee in flexion and extension.
“The old traditional instruments used in performing a total knee replacement are no longer needed,” Dr. Tutorino says. “The robot replaces those old instruments.”
While the procedure takes about the same length of time as a traditional one, recovery can be quicker.
Once she awakened, Pennacchio was wheeled to an orthopedic wing, where she spent two nights — although most patients spend a single night or even have the procedure done as an outpatient and go home the same day.
“The [orthopedic wing staff] were incredible, and I was a nurse when I was younger, so I know a lot of what needs to be done,” Pennacchio says. “They absolutely amazed me. I felt like I was in a high-end hotel.”
Pennacchio, like most patients, was able to walk 80 feet several hours after surgery.
‘My knee was degenerating to bone-on-bone, plus I’m overweight. It was excruciating every time I stood up or sat down.’– Helen Pennacchio
During this time, Penacchio attended a physical therapy session called Joint Camp with two other patients. She said the physical therapists cheered her on and helped her get past the pain.
“It’s a stressful time, especially if you’re alone and don’t have the comfort of a partner with you. To have a facility where all the staff are encouraging and makes you feel like you can get through this, that you don’t have to do anything on your own — it makes all the difference in the world,” Penacchio says.
Pennacchio’s health and lifestyle are likely to improve because of this surgery, Dr. Tutorino notes. Since she’s more ambulatory, she can be more active, which can lead to weight loss and other health benefits, he says.
Although she gave up the barber shop less than a year after her husband of 52 years died, Pennacchio stays busy making pierogis and stuffed cabbage with friends at Apopka’s St. Mary Protectress Byzantine Church; they sell the food to raise relief funds for Ukraine.
She also walks around a lake.
“Sometimes I just sit on the bench and gaze at the beautiful vista before me and think how lucky I am to have come successfully through the surgery and now I’m able to enjoy this daily ritual,” she says.
“Getting up from a chair was a monumental effort,” Pennacchio says. “Now, at almost 75 years old, I feel young again.”