Being an athlete - especially in high school and college – and knowing that an injury is going to keep you on the sidelines is tough.
A high school or college athlete’s injury hurts physically and emotionally. Student athletes have a limited time to be eligible to play their sport. Their time to shine and be there for their team mates is short lived. Getting back in the game can become their most pressing issue.
Erik Johnson of Pittsburgh, formerly of DuBois, knows just that. Getting the right treatment – several times – has gotten him back to doing the thing he loved most – basketball – and kept him healthy today as this recent college-grad embarks on his new career in the business world.
Johnson played forward for DuBois Central Catholic boys basketball team. But other than battling on the court, he was battling bad knees.
It started at a state playoff in 2005 when he was a sophomore. Excited to start against rival Kennedy Catholic, he played a decent game, he said. “I went up for a shot against a 6-foot, 8-inch guy trying to get my own rebound when I hear a ‘pop.’” At 6-feet, 1-inch, Johnson felt like he was walking on stilts. He had little pain, but he had no stability. It was the first quarter of the game. By the end, his knee was swollen.
Like approximately 200,000 to 250,000 people in our country yearly, what Johnson had heard was his left-knee ACL, or anterior cruciate ligament, tearing. The ACL is one of the four main ligaments of the human knee. Inside the synovial fluid environment of the knee, a complete ACL tear does not heal on its own. Without an intact ACL, recurrent instability episodes occur – often accompanied by injuries to the other structures in the knee. Surgery was performed at an out-of-town hospital using Johnson’s own tissue as a graft. His knee worked but it didn't bend far without hurting. He lived with it.
Things were looking up during Johnson’s junior year, until February during a practice. Missing some shots, he hit the padded wall behind the net out of frustration and broke a bone in his hand. At DRMC’s Emergency Department, he met Dr. Robert Armstrong, orthopaedic surgeon at West Penn Orthopaedics, for the first time. After repairs, his orders were simple – sit out.
It was depressing because DCC was state-ranked, Johnson said. He continued to go to practices to cheer on his team through he couldn't play. One night, when no one was around, he thought he would make a lay up. He didn't have a brace on his knee but what would one hurt? It brought it him down with a “pop” sound, again.
He called his dad to pick him up and went back to the Emergency Department and Armstrong. Like 8 percent of patients, he’d torn his ACL graft, according to Armstrong. He required a revision ACL reconstruction. This time, it was done by Armstrong at DRMC.
A bucket-handle shaped meniscal tear he’d sustained with his recurrent ACL injury required treatment with a meniscotomy this time, Armstrong said.
With physical therapy and wearing his left-knee ACL functional brace regularly, Johnson’s senior year was much better. He got to play all season, including a game against rival Kennedy Catholic where they redeemed themselves and went on to play in the state championship finals.
After graduating in 2007, Johnson was doing pretty well. In 2010, he came home for DCC’s annual Alumni Game after Thanksgiving and thought he could handle being on the court. He was very careful with his left knee. Of course, he didn't count on being fouled during a lay-up and tearing up his right knee. In some sports, such as downhill ski racing, up to 30 percent of athletes who tear an ACL in one knee will eventually tear another ACL, Armstrong said.
After suffering through his college finals, Johnson went to see Armstrong. With only a short break from school, Armstrong rearranged his schedule to accommodate Johnson’s surgery on a Friday in order to get him back to class on Monday. His torn ACL was repaired with a donor tissue at Johnson’s request to speed his recovery.
Today, Johnson said, he feels great. He no longer uses a brace on his left knee. He was able to play intramural basketball at Duquesne University with good players and was able to keep up just as well. After graduation in May 2011, he and his friends left to backpack across Europe, and he had no problems with his knees.