When young athletes get injured, they typically embark on a challenging journey that can often take them off the field for some time. Star student-athlete, Nick Hall, understands this journey all too well, when an ordinary practice at the start of his Senior football season at Cohasset High School ended with a torn ACL and meniscus.
“As I was practicing a position that had me cutting quickly from left to right, I felt the infamous ‘pop’ and my knee gave out,” Nick recalled. “When I was down on the ground, I knew instantly the extent of my injury and that surgery would likely be necessary.”
An ACL injury is the tearing of the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL)—one of four major ligaments in your knee and vital to athletes because it provides roughly 90 percent stability in the knee joint. Because the knee joint is the largest and most complex joint in the body—bearing more weight than most other joints—it is by default, more prone to injury. Nick’s injury falls into the approximately 50 percent of torn ACL injuries that occur in combination with damage to the meniscus (knee cartilage that cushions the shinbone from the thighbone). An ACL injury most commonly occurs in sports that involve sudden stops, jumping or changes in direction, such as soccer, tennis, and in Nick’s case, football.
Michael W. Geary, MD of South Shore Orthopedics performed reparative surgery on Nick’s injury. Dr. Geary is one of South Shore Health System’s board-certified, highly-skilled surgeons specializing in sports medicine and orthopedic trauma.
“After an MRI confirmed a torn ACL and meniscus, we made a plan to ensure Nick would have the best possible outcome to return to sports—understandably during a critical point in his student-athlete career,” Geary said. “Like Nick, many people hear or feel a "pop" in the knee when an ACL injury occurs. Your knee often swells, may feel unstable and may even become too painful to bear weight, which means there is preparation necessary before the actual surgery.”
Having the knee ready for surgery is an important step to ensure an optimal surgical outcome. The goals of prehabilitation are to minimize pain and swelling and restore knee range of motion, especially extension. In Nick’s case, he underwent a month of prehabilitation exercises to prepare for his reconstruction. During this crucial time, he maintained a leadership football role off the field as Captain and had an opportunity to mentally prepare for the long recovery and post-surgical rehabilitation process that would soon get him back on the field.
During Nick’s surgery, the torn ACL was replaced with a new ligament (graft) taken from his hamstring tendons at the back of the thigh. Using an arthroscope to view the inside of the knee, Dr. Geary used the camera as a guide, and proceeded to drill holes in the thigh bone and shinbone, passing the new ligament through these holes to anchor it in place. As time goes on, the new graft becomes a living ligament in his knee.
Rehabilitation of an ACL reconstructed knee begins the day of surgery. Patients are fitted with a brace in the interest of controlling range of motion and protecting the graft as it heals. Immediately after surgery, a very groggy Nick awoke to have his first meeting with Physical Therapist, Dan Murray.
“I had an instant connection with Dan’s kind demeanor and patience,” Nick said. “I remember looking at my Mom and asking her if we could continue physical therapy with him at the Center in Hingham.”
South Shore Hospital’s Center for Orthopedics, Spine and Sports Medicine offers personalized sports therapy programs to speed healing and maximize performance. Staffed with dedicated physical and occupational therapists specializing in treating orthopedic conditions and athletic injuries, we offer proven rehabilitation protocols tailored to your unique goals with a primary mission on relieving pain and restoring strength, function and mobility.
“During rehabilitation, the first goal is to regain range of motion in the knee. An early indicator of success is a patient's ability to achieve full extension,” Murray said. “Athletes then move on to increasing strength with their foot off the ground, then putting weight on it and then progressing to sports specific movements.”
For a competitive athlete like Nick, an injury like this happening during senior year—the most crucial recruiting time with colleges—could certainly leave anyone feeling less than optimistic. Instead, Nick remained level-headed and used the opportunity to grow stronger.
“From the first day he came in for rehab and then on after he was a motivated, efficient, hard-working patient who not only hit every mark on time, but hit it in spades,” Dan said. “He was ready for the next step well before he should have been ready for the next step. That has a lot to do with how hard you work."
Physical therapy started out as twice a week and then slowly transitioned to every 2 or 3 weeks as he continued to develop strength and endurance. During this time, Nick developed a wonderful rapport and trust with Dan, who consistently encouraged him that the hard work and dedication he was putting into recovery will ultimately help him return to sports at an even higher level than prior to injury.
“I’ve always been more of an optimist—never letting my highs get too high or my lows get too low,” Nick said. “Dan’s great energy and calming presence helped push me forward every step of the way throughout physical therapy.”
Now, almost a year post-injury, Nick is ready and excited to play a post-graduate year of football at Phillips Exeter Academy. “There’s an old cliché that everything happens for a reason,” Nick explained. “And if there’s one good thing my ACL injury has done, it’s that it showed me firsthand the incredible things doctors can do. Dr. Geary was not only able to transform a piece of my hamstring into a new ACL, but he was also able to keep me hopeful and content throughout the whole process.”
After seeing how everyone involved in his care at the Center worked together as one to help him get through to the other side, Nick’s dream to become a doctor was even further solidified. “I know I need to make a meaningful contribution to our world. Whether I become a pediatrician, helping children every day or helping to save lives as child cancer researcher, I realize more than ever that dreams can come true with years of hard work and dedication,” Nick said.
For many high school athletes with plans to pursue high-level college sports, an injury of this nature can be devastating. Nick encourages athletes with a similar injury to stay focused and determined during the recovery process. “I realize it can be hard in midst of injury to feel like your athletic dreams are over, but going through the recovery process has taught me many important lessons about perseverance,” Nick said. “Never give up your dreams.”
South Shore Hospital’s orthopedic services are nationally recognized for excellence—including designation by the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association as a Blue Distinction Center+ for Hip and Knee Replacement. Our orthopedic program also has earned high-performance marks in U.S. News & World Report’s national hospital rankings—placing South Shore Hospital among the Best Regional Hospitals in the Boston area. South Shore Hospital’s Center for Orthopedic, Spine and Sports Medicine is one essential part of South Shore Health System’s comprehensive approach to care.