From hip replacement to professional athlete, he thrives.
To look at David Nonemacher’s Instagram account, you would never guess that he has lived with severe pain for more than a decade… or that he had a hip replacement at the age of 28… or that anyone would not want him as an employee. Athletic and creative, he has achieved the difficult balance of pursuing an active life and crafting an arts-based business.
But look beyond the pictures, and you’ll see the image of a complex person who is facing obstacles every day. You’ll see a 36-year-old man who has lived with degenerative hip dysplasia, severe osteoarthritis, avascular necrosis, and scoliosis. An athlete who has had to dramatically change the focus of his fitness regimen. A man who has battled addiction to stay sober for seven years.
David is proof that chronic pain doesn’t have to stop you—that it’s possible to adapt and craft a fulfilling life, even in the face of daily pain. “Pain has changed my life completely,” he says. “Every decision is based on whether or not it’s smart for my daily health.”
Adapting with exercise
David was always an active person, and although he had some pain when younger, it was not severe. He lives in Oceanside, Calif., and played tournament beach volleyball in his early 20s. The events were always sponsored by alcohol companies, so he would be drinking all day, running and jumping on the sand, feeding off the adrenaline from competing in front of a crowd. He thought the pain he felt at night was normal—“this is just from a day of torturing my body”—and didn’t suspect anything was medically wrong.
But when he got sober, he learned that the drugs and alcohol he was abusing were a form of self-medication. “It was another way of coping with the constant pain and discomfort my whole body was in,” he says. “When I started to get completely detoxed, I started ‘feeling’ things again, both inside and out.”
The pain was severe, and David says he quickly realized he would have to become “addicted to health and addicted to taking care of myself.” He found himself with a lot more free time, so fitness and wellness took a front seat. He switched to low-impact athletics, with less jumping and running, and more gymnastics and strength training.
Hip replacement at 28
Soon after getting sober, David knew he had to get serious about the pain in his right hip. His health care team put off the hip replacement surgery as long as they could, but because of David’s hip dysplasia, the angle of his hips is wrong. With each step or jump, there’s pressure on the top of his femurs, and on the right side it was cutting off blood supply, causing avascular necrosis of the femoral head. “I had a bunch of cysts in there, and it was bone on bone… the bone was dying.” He had a right hip replacement and partial femur replacement in 2013.
For years, he had been unable to get health insurance. Before the Affordable Care Act, David found himself taking jobs partly because they offered health insurance. But when he took time off from his last full-time job to get the hip replacement, the company let him go. He had to reconcile being released from a job he liked, just for taking care of his health.
Getting into advocacy
In the weeks following his hip replacement, David was antsy—he wanted to get active again. Five weeks after surgery, his doctor cleared him to ride a stationary bike. David, who is nothing if not stubborn and passionate about fitness, signed up for a Century Ride… a 100-mile bike race.
“It gave me something to look forward to,” says David. “I completed it in seven hours, which was not a fast time, but it felt great to finish.” After the race, he was walking through the expo area, checking out the exhibitors, “and using my bike like a cane, because I was having trouble walking.” He says he never really knew there were other young people with health issues like his, but that day, he encountered the National Arthritis Research Foundation (NARF)—and discovered an entire organization with a focus on keeping people active and healthy despite arthritis.
NARF was sponsoring a team for the upcoming Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon in San Francisco and recruited David to join the team. He was excited, but three months before the race, tragedy struck: he dislocated his new hip and was injured in a hit-and-run accident, which split his femur. Determined as ever, David kept finding ways to train for the race. He ended up participating, and his older brother Michael ran with him just to make sure David could make it to the finish line.
Professional athletics, professional arts
Today, David is sponsored to participate in all kinds of athletic events, as a competitor and celebrity athlete. “Part of my allure is that I’m a guy in my upper 30s who has all these ailments, and has battled addiction, but I’m still doing this—and I show other people they can do it too,” he says. “You don’t have to have perfect DNA or perfect training. You can be athletic within your own abilities, even with things stacked against you.”
He knows professional athletic work isn’t sustainable for long time, but he’s happy to be involved as long as he can be. His wellness routine includes lots of water-based exercise, which suits his Pisces personality and gives his joints some relief. He eats a vegan diet and doesn’t use any pharmaceutical medications.
David balances his athletic work and passion for fitness with a small metalworking shop, where he creates sculptures and furniture. “I like how small and simple my business is,” he says. He rarely advertises his services, preferring instead to work on large commissioned art pieces whenever possible.
Scary times in surgery
David has had numerous surgeries. Both wrists have been extensively repaired with bone grafts, titanium replacements, pins, screws, and fusions. And he knows he has a lifetime of surgeries ahead, including a left hip replacement in his near future.
That’s why it’s extra-scary that David is allergic to propofol, a drug regularly used in anesthesia. Before his health care team determined he had a propofol allergy, they thought it was a morphine reaction, so he had a wrist surgery without morphine—but had a severe allergic reaction anyway and almost died in surgery.
Propofol allergies are so rare that the anesthesiologist was “a little bit too excited about it,” says David. (“‘Wow, I’ve only read about this in books!’ is what he said after surgery.”) “You gave us quite a scare,” a nurse said to David when he woke up from that procedure. He can’t take that risk again, so his team is researching alternatives.
David and his girlfriend, Laura, help each other stay as well as possible, honoring each other’s wellness goals. She’s a personal trainer, and they’re looking for a house to buy together. Laura’s sister is an anesthesiologist, so she’s on the hunt for an alternative medication so David can safely get the surgeries he needs.
David rarely talks about his pain, and says many people are surprised when they learn his background. “They all assume I was in a motorcycle accident or something dramatic, not that I have arthritis everywhere,” he explains. But by working with NARF—and sharing his story here—he hopes he can show more people that it’s possible to live an active life in spite of pain.
National Arthritis Research Foundation: curearthritis.org