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Knee Injury: Caroline's Story

I was about to turn 13 when I dealt with my first life-changing experience.

I loved to play sports, whether it was basketball, softball, swimming, soccer, or field hockey. I dreamed of being a star athlete in high school and possibly swimming in college. However, it all changed one winter morning when I was playing a basketball game for my rural league team.

Patella Problems

I was having a pretty good game. But then I remember falling and screaming for help. I didn't know what was wrong with me. I looked at my leg and it was twisted in the opposite direction as if I broke it.

My coaches and mom both ran over to me but they didn't even know what it was. I was taken to the hospital in an ambulance where I was diagnosed with a dislocated patella.

The first thing I thought was, "How does your kneecap come out of place?" At this point, I was in extreme pain and my entire body was tingling. I remember looking at the trains painted on the ceiling of the emergency room and tracing the tracks to keep my mind off the pain.

My patella was not put back into place for a few hours because the doctors needed to make sure nothing else was damaged. For a 12-year-old, it was a lot to take. I kept asking myself, How does this heal? Will I need surgery? What is physical therapy? and Will it happen again? Later that night, I headed home later with a giant knee immobilizer on and an appointment to see an orthopedist.

My first sigh of relief was when I heard that I did not need surgery — yet. My doctors prescribed 6 weeks of physical therapy. I told myself that this is how I would heal and that, soon enough, I would be playing sports again.

I went back to school. At first I thought I would have trouble paying attention because I still had pain and discomfort. But I managed to deal with it. I was asked multiple times about what happened. It's never easy to explain, especially when you don't know exactly what caused the injury to happen. Plus, when you're only in middle school, the other kids don't really understand what you're talking about.

Through my many doctors' visits, I learned that my injury was not a result of my activity. It was the way my own body was built that caused my patella to dislocate — a combination of things like the angles of my body, ligaments that were too tight in some places and too loose in others, and the fact there was no groove for my patella to sit in. I had no idea there could be this many things wrong! But I kept going and eventually I was back to playing sports with a brace on.

Patella Problems: The Sequel

A year went by. At one game in early December there were only a few minutes left in the game when I found myself on the ground again, screaming. This time, I looked down and the leg with the brace on it was fine. The problem was now my right knee. I said to myself, "Why did this happen to me again and how does it happen on the other knee?"

At this point, my parents and I knew this wasn't a normal injury. The scary part was it happened a total of five times (three times in one knee, twice in the other). Because my patella had dislocated so often, my doctor told me that the likelihood of it happening again would be very high. He recommended surgery on my left knee. But he told me it was a quality-of-life surgery — meaning it would make my normal activities better but I may not be able to play sports like I used to.

Surgery, Recovery, and the Importance of Friends

The surgery was invasive but I knew I needed something done because I could not keep living with the fear of getting hurt every year. The full recovery was 1 year. My parents moved a bed downstairs for me to sleep in because it required too much energy to move up and down the stairs. I was on crutches for 6 weeks.

When my friends came to visit, they really cheered me up because I couldn't do much. One of my friends painted my toenails since I couldn't reach, and others brought over DVDs and magazines. It made my day when they came over because I could never get out of the house. I also had a guy friend who always came over to just hang out and talk. There were many nights where I felt so sorry for myself that I just wanted to lie in bed and cry. But I told myself that it had to get better eventually.

I really needed my friends because it did get lonely most of the time when I knew they were going to the beach and I wasn't able to move quickly, let alone hop my way into a car and feel comfortable. My incision was about 5 inches, and not pretty. I knew there was nothing I could do about it, though; they were my battle wounds.

Making Compromises

I was now entering my sophomore year of high school, and I was excited about that. It was a pretty good year for me; I finished up physical therapy but unfortunately had to wear my knee brace to all of the school dances! It was hard at first because I thought everyone would be staring at me, but I moved on and realized that I would rather feel comfortable than hurt the entire night. I was asked to prom that year, and I was able to go without a knee brace.

I had gained more confidence in myself and it made me much happier. Although I was feeling pretty good, I knew that it would be too hard for me to play field hockey again. I became a manager so that I could still watch and hang out with the team. It was hard to give up a sport that meant so much to me, but I knew my knee could not handle it any longer. I still swam and did well during my sophomore year of high school. I was finally moving on and things were looking better ahead.

Patella Problems III

My junior year was one of my most important years of high school. I had an awesome year, except for one tiny thing: I wiped out on the cafeteria floor and my right kneecap was dislocated once again. I couldn't believe it happened; luckily, it wasn't on the knee that had been operated on already. My dad is a physical education teacher at my school, so he was able to get there pretty quickly and put my knee back into place while I was lying there. Once it was back in I felt better, until I noticed a sharp pain.

I knew something was wrong because I had never felt that pain before. My knee swelled up very quickly and the pain continued. I had an MRI done and it was off to my doctor's office again. He told me that I had torn my medial patellar-femoral ligament, a small ligament that attaches the patella to the femur.

My doctor encouraged me to get surgery again because he said that if it wasn't fixed, it wouldn't take much for it to dislocate again. This surgery wasn't as invasive as the first so the full recovery was only 6 months. I have two smaller scars on my right knee now, and two healed-up holes where the arthroscope entered.

Today, I am feeling much better and both of my knees have remained healthy. I have to continue to keep them strong, though, in order for the surgeries to continue working properly. I can't say that my confidence is totally back because I will always have the fear of something happening.

Shifting Perspectives: Sports to Studying

Now that I don't have sports, I have realized that I need to rely on academics more, so keeping good grades is very important to me. I plan to study occupational therapy in college. I've been through physical therapy so many times, and the more I learned about occupational therapy, I knew it would be something I would love to do!

For the past two summers, I have also volunteered at the hospital where I had my surgery. It's my way of giving back to the hospital that has helped me so much. After volunteering, I knew right away that I wanted a career where I could work with children in a hospital setting. I want kids to find happiness, no matter what life has thrown at them.

It's not easy to lose things that you love to do, like I loved sports. But I have found a love for new things that are within my capabilities. Although I can't do as much as I used to, I have found other important things in life. My family and friends keep me going every day.

One of my favorite things to do is take pictures of people and nature. Then, I edit them for everyone to see. I can no longer play softball, but I help out the baseball team by managing with a few of my close friends.

During the school year, I enjoyed working on the homecoming committee to build our parade float and spirit wall. I was part of the prom committee that planned the junior and senior prom for my high school.

This past summer, I traveled to Europe. Throughout the trip, I didn't have any knee issues, which was thrilling because I was thousands of miles away from home.

I have learned that I should never take anything for granted because you never know when something will be taken away. It's been a great lesson because it lets me know I can really achieve anything if I put my mind to it!

Reviewed by: Suken A. Shah, MD

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