Saturday, July 19, 2008

The annoyance of bad feet.

Am I annoying? Well, yeah, I guess I can be. I try not to be; and sometimes it can be a real struggle to hold back.

When I was in high school, I ran cross-country track my last two years. Probably at my best, I was only mediocre. After school, I tried to keep up the running because I actually really enjoyed it. There were days when I felt as though I could just keep running forever without getting tired.

The summer after graduation, I was running along the road about 2-3 miles from home when my left knee SUDDENLY (and I mean that literally – there was no warning) felt as though someone was trying to pop it off with an invisible screwdriver.

This effectively ended my running days.

For a while, I tried various tricks. Extra stretching; creams; very tight ace bandage wraps; cutting back on my running; sneaking to a doctor to get an orthotic (specially fitted support insert) for my shoe which I got into trouble for when my parents got THAT bill!

The ace bandage wrap worked the best but it was unreliable because it wouldn’t always stay wrapped. My last run was pretty much a race in which the bandage loosened up and my kneecap wouldn’t let me do more than hobble to the ambulance tracking the last runners.

Particularly annoying were the old guys running past me with their encouraging “Walk it out, kid!” as if I was simply out of breath. They meant well, I guess. But boy did I hate them.

Over the years, I’ve tried working back into running. Never works. After about a mile and a half, I can feel the knee starting to pop. Even the other knee has started acting up. This can be a problem even if I walk too much. No doubt the extra poundage wrapped around my mid-section isn’t helping.

The desire to run is never far from my thoughts, so imagine my hopefulness at hearing a commercial about this place; let’s call it “Great Foot” so I don’t maybe get anyone in trouble. All I had to do was find one of their many stores, stop in without even setting up an appointment, and have a custom analysis of my feet (for free!) followed by a custom selected orthotic support (which of course would not be free)!

Here’s a portion of a press release: “By taking each customer through a personal biomechanical balancing and foot-printing process, arch supports and cushions are custom-fitted to ensure ultimate comfort.”

Wow, huh?!

So, I entered the store and was immediately greeted by, oh, let’s call her Francis.

I have purchased supports from Walmart in the past, but they didn’t do much to help my running. So I was probably starting off a bit skeptical. Nonetheless, I really WANTED to believe that this could work. I would love to run again.

Right away I got the sales pitch (see summarized version above in the press release quote). Then Francis did an amazing demonstration! She had me hold my fists out, one above the other in front of my bellybutton (it’s an innie, so it didn’t get in the way), then she pushed down on them and I lost my balance. She then had me put my hands behind me, did the same push down and I started to fall over backwards.

Yikes! Apparently my feet were a real mess! It was amazing I was able to stay upright! She clearly demonstrated to me that my footing was not stable. This was certainly alarming.

Next, she pulled out this cool platform thingy with paper in it. I was to walk on it once for each foot so that it could create an ink footprint. Cool! Here’s my right foot (I messed up and had to re-do it, so this was my bad step which Francis let me keep).

With all my “data” (that would include verbal information, the footprints, plus the miserably failed balance test), Francis went into the back of the store to figure out the best type of support for my particular foot problems. As she was gone, I started to worry that they wouldn’t be able to find something to fit my particular foot needs. Maybe I would have to place the order and they would send out to the main facility to custom fabricate orthotics to meet my unique arch support system needs. I was getting more and more worried the longer she was gone. I didn’t want to have to come back a week later, I wanted better support NOW!

Imagine my relief when Francis came back with a handful of plastic baggies each containing different types of supports! She smiled and it was clear to me that she was able to cobble together a solution to my problems.

In my relief, I related to Francis my visit to the clinic when I was a teenager. The excruciating wait resulting from having had a model of my foot constructed and then the almost two months before the doctors were able to create my custom orthotic!

Francis smiled wider because she too knows what a wonderful futuristic world we live in today! Where even custom eye-glasses can be cut and fitted to our heads in less than an hour! What a beautiful day this was turning out to be! I hummed a bit as Francis tore each individually wrapped orthotic out of its sterile packaging, then took my sneakers and ripped out the old sole cushions. I wouldn’t be needing those any more!

Actually, Francis was talking through this, and it was only just starting to penetrate what she was saying. Let me summarize the most important point: These inserts cost $285 dollars.

As Francis started pressing the $upport$ into their new homes, I couldn’t help but to wonder as to what specific foot support my particular case warranted the $285 price tag. I examined the crumpled little baggie that had contained my left support. I was prepared to have to memorize had a unique designator label like XKZ-26-L-RW2-64C. Fortunately, it was easy to memorize. The code printed on the baggie was only a few letters long. The code was “LARGE”.

Hmmm. Maybe you are wondering if perhaps it was “XKZ-26-L-RW2-64C – LARGE”? No, it was simply, “LARGE” on the wrapper.

Fine. Whatever. The $285 cost at least got me to thinking that maybe they would still be better than the ones I got at Walmart. (Coincidently, the code on the ones I got from Walmart were the same as the ones at Great Foot: “LARGE”.)

Francis gave me my shoes and had me put them on. Time for a re-visit of the balancing test. With my hands in front again, Francis was unable to tip me over (she even gave a little grunt of effort so that I knew she was really trying to tip my balance). Even with my hands behind my back, she was unable to tip me over (she did the little “effort-grunt” again, by the way). I was standing on a bedrock of arch supports.

Here is where I began to struggle with the annoying part of me. Even my wife could see my struggle. Both asked what was the matter (with that tone in their voices that made me think they believed I was late for an appointment in the bathroom).

I said, “Nothing” but my wife wouldn’t let it alone (another reason why I love her). So I suggested that perhaps this “balance test” was biased. That is, maybe the salesperson was helping me with the outcomes of each test. Francis was clearly shocked at the idea. This made me feel bad for seeming to doubt her. She had been very nice and helpful. I quickly explained that I didn’t think it was deliberate! This sort of thing happens all the time in research, which is why the good researchers use blind (or “double-blind”) procedures. Unconscious bias can affect test outcomes.

Wanting to end the matter, I again tried to pass it off as a side-effect of my being an idiot. However, the damage had been done. I had thrown down a gauntlet and Francis was ready to do battle. She insisted on the blind test. So, ok. I told her we would do two tests - one with and one without the supports, only she would not know when they were in or not for the balancing tests. For the first test, I decided to leave them in.

After a while of feeling guilty for being annoying, we called Francis back in and I stood up for the test. With hands in front, she pushed (no effort grunt) and I started to tip over. This was NOT what I wanted. Although, I was skeptical about the demonstration, I would have been glad to spend the money on supports if it meant I might be able to run again. This little tip instantly crushed my dreams. Francis, on the other hand, smiled and said, “I think I know that the supports are out of your shoes!”

We did the behind-my-back test and I tipped over even quicker. With obvious confidence in the test, Francis stated that I was NOT wearing the supports.

Now, I was feeling pretty bad already now that I had lost faith in the supports. I wasn’t looking forward to being a real ass and showing her that I still had them on. She was really shocked to see them in my shoes. Right away, she proposed the hypothesis that I must not have had them in correctly. If they are out of position by even the littlest smidge, they are apparently worthless.

Well, if that were true, they were REALLY not going to be very helpful. They had felt ok in my shoes, and if I can’t tell whether they are fitting correctly or not, why buy them? I decided to terminate the study (no second test) to avoid further turmoil. We left with the, “We should really check with the doctor first to see if our insurance might be useful” excuse.

I’d like to think that maybe Francis has been given some food for thought regarding the validity of her test, but I’m skeptical. She was pretty quick to come up with an excuse to protect her belief in the validity of the test. So, I imagine her using the same routine on her customers still. Only I doubt that she would allow anyone to test her again.

Sometimes being annoying can save you money and might even be educational to others (if they are open-minded enough to learn from it). But, it's still annoying to have the foot problem.