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Special Artificial Joint Saves Woman From Losing Leg After Knee Replacement

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- Total knee replacements are done thousands of times a year, restoring mobility and easing pain.

But in the rare case where something goes wrong, it can be devastating. As CBS2's Dr. Max Gomez reported, Hazel Atkinson nearly lost her leg after knee surgery and a doctor had to step in and save it.

An infected hip or knee replacement is a disaster. The prosthesis has to be removed – leaving an effectively useless leg for weeks or months before another joint can be put in.

If the infection or other complications get really bad, it can take heroic measures to save the leg.

Doctors and hospitals go to great lengths to prevent infection in total joint replacements. Surgeons wear special suits, and scrub themselves and the patients' skin with germ-killing solutions.

But sometimes that is not enough.

Atkinson was in a serious car accident that broke both her legs. She ended up with a total knee replacement in one that eventually loosened, got infected, and needed multiple services.

"Several doctors in the hospital said that it was time to give up," Atkinson said.

Even in thinking about how the doctors suggested they would have to amputate her leg, Atkinsons said, "It still brings tears."

But Atkinson found Dr. Nakul Karkare, who was willing to try to save her leg. Normally, that means taking out the artificial joint and placing special antibiotic-impregnated spacers – but that was not an option.

"There was no commercially available spacer which can be put in the knee" in Atkinson's situation, said Karkare, of Northwell Health Lenox Hill Hospital.

So Karkare finished a custom implant using large amounts of antibiotic cement, and then replaced it with a huge knee implant normally used in bone cancer patients.

"Amputation was still possible, because the nerves and the blood vessels are all entrapped in the scar tissue around the new joint," Karkare said.

But a couple of years later, not only was Atkinson walking normally – she went to China and walked the Great Wall, all without a cane or walker.

"I play with my grandson – I love it," she said.

Atkinson still has to take antibiotics, because even a dental procedure or a small skin infection can release bacteria that can take root and colonize her new implant. But that is not unlike regular joint replacement patients.

She said having to take antibiotics is a small price to pay for saving her leg.

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