The Discovery Bay resident and Press photographer – “Wiz” to his friends and colleagues – underwent double-knee replacement surgery in February. A single generation ago, that procedure would have been considered impossible, especially for a man of his nearly 71 years.
“Oh yeah, it’s definitely a miracle. Can you believe it?” he asks, pointing at his two scarred, slightly swollen but otherwise perfect knees. “I don’t believe I did this.”
But he knew it was coming. After years of climbing, crawling and craning for the perfect shot, prowling the sidelines at professional football games, crouching on hard, unforgiving basketball courts, the former San Jose Mercury News photojournalist spent a career chronicling life’s moments, and in the process managed to photograph every president since Eisenhower, with the exception of George W. and Obama. He cites a photo he took of Clinton in San Jose as one of his favorites, and laughs at the time he bumped into JFK, literally, during a photo shoot in Tucson, Ariz.
“I backed into him with an umbrella and fell down and he turned to the Secret Service and asked them to help me up,” he said. “I didn’t really talk to him but he was very gracious.” Eleanor Roosevelt used to vacation in Tucson in the 1960s, years after her time in the White House. Wisdom, raised in Arizona and living there at the time, was sent by the Tucson Daily Citizen each year to shoot the former first lady’s picture, and he recalls her as “just a wonderful, wonderful person; so warm and kind. She would remember me coming to take her picture every year.”
Political personalities aside, Wisdom also managed to grab a piece of a Pulitzer Prize for his efforts with the Mercury News team in covering the epic flood in Grand Forks, N.D. in 1997. He shakes his head at the fact that 12 years later, the same city is battling the same forces of nature. “That was quite an experience, and now they’re going through it again,” he said. “It’s hard to believe.”
Whether it be presidential photos or community events, Wisdom’s trademark heavy lens and equipment is never far behind. “I didn’t lie around all my life,” he laughs. “You know, carrying around those 40-pound lenses is hard on your knees – your shoulders, too. But I made a hell of a living at it and it was great fun. It’s all good.”
When the flesh finally caught up with the spirit, and cortisone injections and pain relievers were no longer effective, Wisdom’s doctor told him it was time. When he also told Wisdom he was a candidate for both knees, and that he’d be willing to do them at the same time if wanted, Wisdom figured it might be worth a try.
“We hadn’t really thought about doing both at the same time, but boy, I’ll tell you: I’m glad I did, or at least I think I am,” he said. “I would never have gone back for the second one after going through this.”
The procedure itself, which replaces the entire knee structure between the femur and tibia with a 1.5-pound joint made of metal and plastic, is a relatively simple operation; it’s the post-surgical danger of infection or bleeding – and ultimately the degree of mobility achieved – that make the procedure no minor event. Wisdom’s double replacement took more than five hours to complete, but was relatively uneventful.
But the recovery has been another story. “When I woke up (after surgery) I was so sure I was going to die; the pain was so bad,” he said. “I wished I was dead. I’ll never forget it. It was the worst pain I’ve ever had.”
Wisdom had the procedure done at Kaiser Permanente in Antioch, where he spent three days in the hospital before being transferred to a rehab facility in Concord for another 12 days. The high-energy, upbeat Wisdom says he slept a lot those first few days – between torture sessions with the physical therapists.
“Boy, they get you up right away. They don’t let you sit or anything,” said Wisdom. “It was hell. But I’m not saying that about them (the staff); they couldn’t have been nicer to me. It just hurt a lot.”
“He did do a lot of yelping,” concedes his wife Kay, who said that after the first week, her husband began “pushing the wheelchair around with his feet like the little old ladies do.”
Wisdom’s days are currently spent in physical therapy at home and the hospital. A brand-new recaltrant exercise bike sits in the front room, where the patient can watch television (“a little March Madness and CSI”) or gaze outside at the waters of Discovery Bay as he coaxes his new knees into shape.
Home three weeks now, cabin fever is just starting to set in for both Wisdoms, who are accustomed to jet-setting off on trips with their friends and family. Sitting around has made them both a little lazy, they concede, and they look forward to things returning to normal.
“Life’s a little different right now,” said Kay. “For one thing, we’re sleeping a lot later than we use to, and we’ve had to postpone some of our trips. But we’ll do them next year. Right now we’re just concentrating on him getting better.”
It’ll be another 12 weeks or so before Wisdom can get behind the steering wheel of a car, or his beloved Wave Runner. “Maybe by June,” he said. “I don’t know; we’ll see how I do. What I really want to do is shoot some pictures, but I’m not getting around too well right yet.”
For now, he’s sticking to the La-Z-Boy, his walker and wheelchair, although Kay said the wheelchair isn’t long for this world: “I told him that by the end of the month, it’s gone; he’s getting too used to it. The same for the walker, but we’ll give him more time with that.”
Still stiff and a little bit thinner – he has lost about 10 pounds – Wisdom is now able to make his way up and down a few steps with his walker, and says the doctor predicts full mobility within six months.
Despite the pain and hardship, Wisdom is grateful for the procedure and content with his decision to replace both knees simultaneously. “I’m happy about it, at least I think I am,” he laughed. “I’ll let you know six months from now. Ask me then.”