Back in the Spotlight
November 19, 2018
When the lights go back on in theaters across Manhattan—a year and a half after going dark because of the COVID-19 pandemic—writer/producer Cornell Christianson will be there better and stronger than ever. But one thing won’t be: his cane, which he previously relied on to walk and which had become his calling card to the many writers, actors and others he worked with on his off-Broadway shows.
For five years, Cornell lived with debilitating symptoms associated with osteoarthritis in his hip. Surgery was the likely solution. But with two of his shows running concurrently, it was a fix he just couldn’t take the time to pursue.
Then in March 2020, everything changed. The lights at Cornell’s theaters were shut off, and he found himself with more time than he’d ever had.
Living With Pain
Cornell’s hip pain and symptoms began in 2017, after he moved from California to New York. A musical he wrote in Los Angeles and a second in Salt Lake City were both set to open off-Broadway. “I started limping and couldn’t put any weight on my leg,” says Cornell, the Fair Lawn, NewHe met with Stephen Rossman, D.O., FAAOS, FAOAO, orthopedic surgeon at Palisades Medical Center and Hackensack University Medical Center, who diagnosed him with osteoarthritis in his left hip. “When I first met Cornell, I had been in practice five years and had not seen a worse case of arthritis,” Dr. Rossman says. “I couldn’t believe he was walking. Typically patients with arthritis lose some internal or external rotation, but I could barely move his hip at all.”
Dr. Rossman told Cornell he needed hip replacement surgery, but because that wasn’t an option with Cornell’s work schedule, he recommended physical therapy first. “Dr. Rossman was so supportive and patient with me, knowing I couldn’t do the surgery until I had a break,” Cornell says. “He is a terrific doctor—smart, friendly—and I could tell right away how experienced he was.”
After three months of physical therapy three times a week, Cornell saw some improvement. “I could walk again, although I needed a cane and hobbled around everywhere,” he says. “Surgery looked like a good course of action, but I just couldn’t find the time.”
That’s because his musical, “It Came From Beyond,” opened at an off-Broadway theater in March 2018. A year later, while that show was still running, his second musical, “Wicked City Blues,” opened.
“It’s unheard of for a playwright to have two musicals running at the same time,” Cornell says. “Getting to the theaters was tough with my cane. I had to take a train into the city every day and walk 12 blocks from the station to the theater.”
He says he became known as the “guy at the show with the cane.” He relied on his theater company members to help him get up stairs and hold open doors for him.
Relief at Long Last
When Cornell’s shows were shut down in March 2020 because of COVID-19, he suddenly had time to prioritize his health. Unfortunately, COVID-19 also shut down elective procedures like hip replacements in New Jersey.
Finally, in September 2020, Cornell was able to schedule his hip replacement surgery after elective procedures resumed. “When I met with Cornell after the COVID-19 shutdown, we realized this was the one window we were waiting for, and we went for it in order to get him recovered before he would be back to work,” Dr. Rossman says.
Dr. Rossman performed a total left hip replacement, and Cornell was up and walking later that day. He spent one night at the hospital and went home to recover the next day.
“I felt incredibly safe while at the hospital and was reassured by all the extra measures they were taking to protect against COVID-19,” Cornell says.
Dr. Rossman saw Cornell again four weeks after surgery and subsequent physical therapy. “By the time I saw Cornell, he was already walking without his cane and had gotten much of his motion back,” he says. “Total hip replacement is one of the most successful surgeries orthopedists perform. It is typically called ‘the forgotten hip’ because years later, patients feel so good they can’t even remember which hip they had replaced. Cornell has recovered exceptionally well.”
‘Double Elation of Freedom’
Although Cornell will need his right hip replaced at some point, these days he is fully enjoying light at the end of the tunnel. “I’m experiencing a double elation of freedom,” he says. “The first is I’m able to walk strongly without my cane. The second is I have my COVID-19 vaccine. I’m so happy about both.”
When he returns to work, his theater company members are in for a surprise. “Everyone is so used to seeing me with my cane, and now they’re going to see me as ‘the new Cornell,’” he says.
Both of his musicals will reopen this fall, and his new musical, “Marilyn Exposed,” is scheduled to open off-Broadway at the end of 2021. And he is more than ready.
“I just love live theater—being with a live audience and the process of getting something on stage,” Cornell says. “I am very blessed and fortunate to be able to do this, and Dr. Rossman is my hero.”
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