Opening the door of his London home, Bill Oddie is just as millions know him from the TV — excitable, jokey, a little rumpled. Unexpectedly, though, despite having had a knee joint replacement only four weeks ago, he’s not on crutches or even using a walking stick.
‘I’m using a stick for going out in case I trip over, but not at home or in the garden,’ says Bill, 77. ‘Three weeks after the operation, my surgeon examined my knee and said: “That’s great.”
‘I said: “You’re just flattering yourself because you did it,” but he said in terms of recovery and how I’d regained my range of movement, I was in the top 5 per cent of his knee replacement patients.’
For at least six years since being diagnosed with osteoarthritis — where the cartilage breaks down causing the bones of the joint to rub together — Bill had lived with the pain all too familiar to many of the nine million Britons with the condition.
For at least six years since being diagnosed with osteoarthritis, Bill Oddie had lived with the pain all too familiar to many of the nine million Britons with the condition
His knee was also unstable, tending to ‘give way’ — in the past year he’s had several nasty falls.
But where his story diverges from the typical arthritis tale is that the root of his particular case goes back more than 40 years to a sports injury — followed by a type of surgery that ‘caused’ his later arthritis.
Bill, an enthusiastic sportsman since he was young — ‘I was captain of just about everything at school’ — was playing a lot of charity football at the height of The Goodies fame. In the warm-up to one match in the late Seventies, when he was in his 30s, his right knee gave way.
‘I pushed the knee to get it back in again and tried to go on but it collapsed again,’ he recalls.
Not long after he underwent surgery to ‘remove excess cartilage’. ‘I recovered well and continued to play some sports, like tennis, often with a crepe support bandage to stop my knee collapsing,’ he says.
Bill has now learned the surgery he had all those years ago involved removing a meniscus disc.
There are two of these triangular wedges in each knee — they poke into the joint, acting as a cushion to protect the cartilage, which lies above the meniscus and coats the bones to help them glide smoothly across each other.
Bill had torn the meniscus on the inner side of his right knee, and up until the early Eighties, a damaged meniscus would be completely removed, explains Adil Ajuied, a consultant orthopaedic surgeon at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospitals NHS Trust, in London.
But where his story diverges from the typical arthritis tale is that the root of his particular case goes back more than 40 years to a sports injury — followed by a type of surgery that ‘caused’ his later arthritis
However, this then popular surgical technique had an unintended long-term effect, predisposing patients to arthritis. ‘The unfortunate effect of removing the meniscus is to remove the shock absorber,’ adds Mr Ajuied, who carried out Bill’s recent knee replacement privately at the Fortius Clinic.
‘Without this shock absorption, half of Bill’s knee would have seen six to ten times more force go through it, the equivalent — as studies have shown — of up to ten times his bodyweight, so it would have worn out more quickly.’
It seems Bill has done extraordinarily well not to need a new knee until now, as many patients who had their meniscus removed needed knee replacements within ten to 15 years. Such patients are still coming through for knee replacements, says Mr Ajuied.
Why Bill has done so well could be due to many factors, including the quality of the cartilage he inherited. The fact that his left knee hasn’t even a twinge makes it likely that his football injury surgery was the cause; without it he might have avoided arthritis altogether, or had it only mildly, with age. A meniscectomy was the gold standard treatment of the time. ‘We can’t say “what were those old codgers doing then?” ’, says Mr Ajuied. ‘It enabled Bill to get back to sports and be active but the price he paid is arthritis.’
Today a torn meniscus is treated in a day procedure where the tears are simply trimmed — ‘you walk out that day and you’re on crutches for only one or two days’, explains Mr Ajuied.
As well as a life-threatening attack of peritonitis — an abdominal infection — in the mid-Seventies, Bill’s other major health concern has been bipolar disorder, diagnosed about 15 years ago, and for which he takes lithium.
It ran in the family. ‘I’d come home from school to find my mother attacking my father,’ he recalls. ‘She was eventually committed to a psychiatric hospital where she sat hunched up in a corner. I had no inkling I had mental health problems until I was 60.
‘In retrospect, I’d been up and down most of my life, sometimes morose and argumentative, sometimes