Royal hip surgeon offers glimpse of King Juan Carlos the practical joker

“I think the king called you, and I thought it was a joke and nearly told him I was the queen!"

King Juan Carlos exits a Madrid hospital last week after undergoing yet more hip surgery. / LUIS SEVILLANO

"Is Doctor Cabanela there?"

"No, he's not in right now."

"Are you his son?"

"No, his wife."

"This is the king. King Juan Carlos."

Rosa, whose husband Miguel Cabanela recently performed a hip replacement on the monarch, thought it was a prank call. "She has a deep voice," explains the Galicia-born surgeon, sitting at a café shortly before returning to Rochester, Minnesota, where he has been living for the past 46 years.

"When I got home 10 minutes later, I found her in a very agitated state. She kept getting up and sitting down on the sofa, and said to me, 'I think the king called you, and I thought it was a joke and nearly told him I was the queen!'"

It was December 31, 1992, the first time that the Spanish monarch and Cabanela got in touch. King Juan Carlos had undergone knee surgery and knew his doctors had consulted with Cabanela. They only spoke a couple of times after that until last September, when Cabanela was contacted again regarding a much more serious health problem: an infected hip implant.

"The king was overwhelmed," says Cabanela. "How would you feel if you'd had six surgeries in two years, the last one with a serious complication, and you thought you were going to need not one but two more operations? An infection is a very serious thing, the most damaging for a hip implant."

The king was overwhelmed. How would you feel if you'd had six surgeries in

two years?"

On November 21, both the patient and the doctor were feeling much more relaxed than in September, when the monarch had had a temporary prosthetic hip implanted (he now has the permanent one in place).

In fact, the king was in such high spirits that he even played a practical joke on his doctors, as he later told Cabanela.

"He was laughing his head off as he told me, 'Look what I did to these guys!' And he told me he had splashed his forehead with [the antiseptic] Betadine, stuck a Band-Aid on his nose, bandaged his wrist and gone to see the doctors at La Zarzuela [the royal residence] to inform them he had had another fall. And the doctors were looking worried until the king burst out laughing."

Cabanela figures he must have implanted close to 10,000 prosthetic hips and knees throughout his career. He worked at the prestigious Mayo Clinic until five years ago, when he began spending more time in developing countries, performing operations in often makeshift conditions. But even that is easier than surgery on a king, he says.

"Operating on the king makes your head spin," he confesses. "There were lots of unknowns during the first operation. I don't know how many infected implants I have treated, but without a doubt this one was the hardest."

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