Bring on the Manolos

After years of yearning for glamorous high heels, Markie Robson-Scott opted to remove her bunion. But was all the pain really worth it?

12 May 2004

I take the plunge and schedule bunion surgery for 29 July. I've been meaning to do this since I was about 12, when someone at school asked me what was wrong with my feet. They've deteriorated over the past 35 years, partly thanks to high-heeled, pointy shoes. We bunion sufferers are often a glamorous lot, apart from our feet, and we spot each other by the lumps on the sides of our shoes. What we crave are gorgeous flip-flops and revealing Manolos - denied to us on aesthetic grounds.

"Just think of the shoes you'll be able to wear," says Tracy, whose flip-flop collection is huge. She had her bunions lopped off years ago when she was an air hostess and tells me she's never regretted it, even though she remembers months of stiffness and shuffling about; neither does Deb, who thinks she wouldn't be able to do yoga as much as she does without having had the surgery, as her weight is so much more evenly distributed now. She also mentions that she couldn't wear ordinary shoes, let alone fabulous ones, for six months, but I ignore that bit.

Bunions are hereditary - my mother has them, in spite of never wearing heels - and other factors too, such as having a big-toe joint that doesn't bend properly, or a metatarsal joint (the long bone that leads up to the big toe) that moves from side to side rather than up and down. My podiatric surgeon, Barry Francis, who worked with the Olympic medical teams in the Eighties and does around 150 bunion surgeries a year, tells me he's going to do an Akin-Scarf osteotomy, a newish American procedure that doesn't involve a plaster cast. The end of the metatarsal is cut and fixed straighter with titanium screws. "You may have some swelling for up to six months," he says. I nod vaguely but don't really take it in. All I care about is having a straighter toe. The left toe has a smaller bump, and though it's more painful than the right I decide, out of vanity, to start with the right foot. I could have them both done at once but Francis advises against it. "You really would feel crippled for six weeks or so," he says.

29 July

Sitting in the North London Nuffield Hospital waiting to be heavily sedated before the one-hour op, I contemplate running away but remember all the trouble my mother has had with her feet. When I come round there's not much pain - a bit of burning and throbbing - but it's nipped in the bud by regular doses of painkillers and anti-inflammatories, inducing a happy, doped-up daze. The physio shows me how to walk in a weird black velcro wedge shoe, slightly Japanese in style. I'm glad I opted to stay one night - there's only my teenage son at home and nursing isn't his strongest point. One of the nurses tells me that she had one bunion removed years ago but had pain on the underside of her foot for two years afterwards and decided not to have the other one done. "It was a different procedure from yours, though," she says. Right.

3 August

I've had to keep my heavily bandaged foot up for four days. Luckily the weather is hot so I've been reclining in the garden, taking arnica every two hours as well as painkillers every now and then. When I try to do anything - unload the dishwasher, go up and down stairs - my foot starts to throb. It's red and bruised around the base of the bandage. By dinnertime I'm jittery and irritable, not from pain but intense irritation with this dead weight of a foot and its horrible velcro appendage. For the first time I wonder if I've made a terrible mistake. I want to go to my spinning class at the gym tomorrow and I can't - no weight-bearing aerobic exercise for about six weeks.

4 August

Bandage-change day. Mr Francis says everything is OK but all I can think about is how weak my big toe is. I can bend it down but not up. Fatally, when I go home I find lots of internet message boards with tales of people who've never regained strength in theirs. Waves of anxiety rush through me and I ring Francis's secretary who tells me one week after surgery is far too early to start worrying. I go on worrying.

7 August

Shower for the first time since the op, using a strange plastic shower-guard, called Limbo, so the wound won't get wet. I try not to obsess about my weak big toe but a conversation with June, who had both feet done on the NHS about a year ago with a base wedge osteotomy, sets me back - her left bunion has returned, she can't squeeze her toes together and neither of her big toes will bend downwards fully. Her physio thinks too much bone was removed. She's hobbling around, in pain, very unhappy. "I bought some lovely diamante velvet flip-flops," she says, "but I can't wear them because they dig into the bone." Then a friend of a friend, Lisa, e-mails me from the USA asking me about my surgery - she had hers done in 1988 and her left bunion has returned as well. "I need surgery again," she says.

15 August

Stitches out last week and a smaller bandage. I catch a glimpse of my raw, red foot and feel sick. At least I can drive, having got rid of the velcro shoe. I'm wearing Birkenstocks instead and walking is incredibly slow. I feel like an ancient Dickensian beggar woman as I limp along from the Tube to the hair-colourist. Banishing my roots cheers me up temporarily but by the weekend I'm at an all-time low, desperate to take the dog for a therapeutic walk but unable to get farther than a hundred yards. I'm convinced that something is wrong, I'm not healing properly and no one will tell me. I'm definitely never going to have the other foot done. A conversation with Jackie, who had her second toe done in April, six months after the first, doesn't help. "I wish I'd never had it done," she says. "I don't feel safe on my feet any more. It's slowed me down. And no flip-flops because I don't want people to see the scars."

17 August

Mr Francis likes to send people to physio sooner rather than later, so you don't develop bad walking habits. How right he is. Kelly at Sammy Margo's practice rescues me from a vale of despair. "You've got a good result here, it's going to be fine," she says while applying a low-intensity laser to aid healing and get the blood supply going. And today I go back to the gym, doing upper-body stuff and a bit of exercise bike. Like magic, I feel more normal.

26 August

One month of my new foot. I'm taking the dog for half-hour walks again. I'm still slow and have to stop occasionally to massage my toe, but it's bearable. Although I'm doing my exercises religiously my toe is still weak, but Kelly says it's progressing and one day - probably at around three months - everything will click. So - when shall I book in for the left foot?

28 September

Two months of my new foot. Scar-healing was delayed because I got an infection - the GP blamed swimming, which the physio had recommended. Grrr. Antibiotics zapped it but it was scary. The swelling's down but walking is painful and I'm limping. My foot still feels traumatised and cries out "Why did you do this to me?" at every step. I'm not passing judgement yet. But my left foot is keeping its bunion and to hell with Manolos - Ugg boots rule.

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