Patient Stories

An Athlete for Life – Advances in Hand Surgery Enable 91-Year-Old Southport Resident to Maintain Her Active Lifestyle

To say Barbara Stetson likes to stay active would be an understatement. At age 91, the Southport, Conn., resident is more athletic than many people half her age.

She plays tennis at least once a week with women in their 40s and 50s. She goes golfing, plays bridge, hits the gym and lifts weights with a personal trainer. She enjoys hosting dinner parties and cooks huge meals for her frequent gatherings. Volunteer work to help others is a regular activity. Last year, she went on a guided tour to Vietnam, biking around much of the country with her daughter and two nieces.

Mrs. Stetson is a high-energy person who lets nothing stop her – not even the severe arthritis that started developing in her hands 30 years ago. Over time, five orthopedic surgeons have performed multiple operations to replace painful arthritic joints in her fingers.

Although replacing a finger joint is less common than a knee or hip replacement, many people also develop severe arthritis in their hands, according to Dr. Scott Wolfe, Mrs. Stetson's doctor. "Joint replacement in the fingers relieves pain and stiffness and allows people to regain the use of their hands," says Dr. Wolfe, a hand and upper extremity surgeon at the Affiliated Physicians Office of Hospital for Special Surgery in Greenwich.

"The implant we use for a finger joint replacement looks like a miniature total knee replacement," says Dr. Wolfe, who is chief emeritus of the hand and upper extremity service at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City and a professor of orthopedic surgery.

In the past couple of years, Mrs. Stetson's arthritis caused her to lose a significant amount of motion in her fingers, and she had intense pain and swelling. She was no longer able to play tennis and golf or engage in other activities she enjoyed.

Dr. Wolfe tried cortisone injections, but the pain relief didn't last. So last year, at age 90, Mrs. Stetson had her eleventh hand surgery – a joint replacement in the middle finger of her right hand. A year earlier, Dr. Wolfe had replaced the joints in the index and middle fingers of her left hand. After the surgery, she was delighted to once again be able to grip her tennis racquet and golf clubs.

For many patients, relieving severe arthritis in their fingers allows them to get back to activities of daily living most of us take for granted, a task as simple as buttoning a shirt or tying shoelaces.

Mrs. Stetson has had joint replacements in most of her fingers, and thanks to the surgeries, she is pain-free and can pursue the active lifestyle she has always loved.

A world traveler, she bicycled through Vietnam with her daughter and two nieces after her last surgery. "If I hadn't had the surgeries, my hands would be crippled. Things get worse if you don't get them fixed right away," she says. "I've had five surgeons operate on my hands over the years, and I like Dr. Wolfe the best. He was the most skilled and had the best personality," she adds.

"Some people have a 'can-do' attitude and other people have a 'will-do' attitude, such as Barbara Stetson," Dr. Wolfe says.

She has excelled in athletics throughout most of her life. At the Brearly School, she was voted "Best Athlete" in the 10th, 11th and 12th grades. With a smile, she recalls winning the ladies singles tennis tournament at the Maidstone Country Club in East Hampton, Long Island, in 1938. At age 85 she rappelled down a 125-foot wall in Africa.

"Mrs. Stetson is a highly motivated person who wanted to get back to activities she enjoys in life. So our objective is to allow her – and other patients who have similar goals – to do that. We do what we can to enable people to participate fully in life and not constrain them to sedentary activities just because of their age," Dr. Wolfe says. "So much of medicine today is geared toward keeping people mobile."

"My philosophy is when it hurts, get it fixed and move on," Mrs. Stetson says. "By the time some people do something, they're in terrible shape. I can't imagine not doing tomorrow what I'm doing today." She's happy she can continue her activities and is planning a trip to Turkey in May.

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