By Christina Orlovsky Page
Any sports fan has heard of the dreaded ACL tear—the destruction of the anterior cruciate ligament, which runs diagonally across the middle of the knee. An injury that has sidelined more than a few professional athletes and ruined the NFL career prospects of many more, it is also the most common sports-related injury treated by the orthopedic and sports medicine team at Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego’s 360 Sports Medicine program.
“I perform approximately 100 ACL reconstruction surgeries on adolescents at Rady Children’s each year,” says Andrew Pennock, M.D., pediatric and sports medicine surgeon at Rady Children’s and associate clinical professor at UC San Diego School of Medicine. “While it’s not a unique injury to adolescents, that is the population most affected by ACL tears because it’s the population most actively participating in sports—particularly ‘cutting’ sports like soccer, football and lacrosse.
For us here in San Diego, girls’ club soccer presents the greatest risk, both because soccer is a popular sport here and because girls are at a five to seven times greater risk than boys for tearing their ACL.”
For Rady Children’s patient Mary Le, it was softball, not soccer, that led to her ACL reconstruction surgery in August 2015. Then a sophomore at Hoover High in City Heights, Le suffered a complete tear of her ACL and her meniscus, which cushions the knee. It was a painful injury that took her out of the game and off her feet for the first and only season of her softball career, leading her to Dr. Pennock at Rady Children’s for his treatment recommendation.
“Dr. Pennock was so nice, and as soon as I met him, I was comfortable listening to his recommendations,” Le says. “He recommended surgery and right away I knew it was the right decision.”
Dr. Pennock rebuilt Le’s ACL with tendons from her own hamstrings—a common technique for ACL repair—and partially removed her meniscus. Following months of physical therapy, Le required a second procedure to remove scar tissue. She has since made a full recovery, and though she hasn’t returned to softball, she is a casual tennis player. While Dr. Pennock says the risk of re-injury is common in adolescents, especially girls, he calls Le’s outcome two years after surgery “nearly perfect.”
The brightest upside of Le’s experience at Rady Children’s was the career path it’s led her down since. Her time spent at the Hospital inspired her to participate in FACES for the Future, an academic and job prep program that guides students toward healthcare careers.
“Before my surgery, I hadn’t thought of a career in healthcare,” she says, “but once I met all the people involved in my care, especially all the OR staff, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”
Through FACES, Le was even able to observe another ACL surgery performed by Dr. Pennock—who had coincidentally been inspired to become a surgeon himself after suffering a sports-related injury in high school. Le is now studying pharmacological chemistry as a freshman at UC San Diego, with the hopes of becoming a pediatric surgeon—a goal she credits to Rady Children’s.
“I truly believe everything happens for a reason,” she says. “Even though it was hard at the time, I’m glad my injury happened, because it brought me to Rady Children’s. I’m grateful it led me where I’m supposed to be.”
Published in the Fall 2017 issue of Healthy Kids Magazine