July 20, 2021
Michael Solomon knew what happened as soon as he heard it. The 16-year-old high school junior from Overland Park, Kansas, was running the ball in the semifinal class 6A championship home game between his team, the Tigers of Blue Valley High School, and their rivals, the Blue Valley Northwest Huskies, when a defensive lineman hit him hard, driving Michael’s shoulder into the ground. There was a sharp crack, “and I knew it was broken,” Michael recalls.
“He didn’t jump up from the tackle like he usually does, and I knew something was wrong,” says Caitlin Truhe, an athletic trainer for The University of Kansas Health System, who was on the sidelines. Truhe hurried over to Michael and could immediately see that he was done playing for the season. Once Truhe assessed Michael to ensure he was safe to move, she immobilized his arm and helped him to the bench where he watched the rest of the game.
“I had to stay there for my team,” Michael says. “It was a big game.”
Team approach for team players
Also present that night was Lucas Thompson, MD, a primary care sports medicine physician at The University of Kansas Health System Sports Medicine and Performance Center. Dr. Thompson was on the Huskies’ sideline, providing medical coverage for the away team.
“The trainers all know us and know they can call us over if they want us to take a look at something,” he says. Truhe did just that, asking Dr. Thompson to assess Michael before deciding whether he needed emergency care that night.
After the game – which the Tigers won, although they lost the final game of the playoffs – Truhe helped Michael carefully remove his pads and provided him and his parents with instructions. “I could feel the deformity in the shoulder and knew the fracture was pretty serious,” says Truhe, one of the certified athletic trainers with the health system who provide services to 27 high schools and middle schools throughout the Kansas City area.
Dr. Thompson recalls that Michael was obviously in pain and his collarbone was clearly broken. However, with splinting, the injury could wait until the following morning for a more thorough evaluation. “It was a pretty rough night,” Michael says. “I slept in a recliner in our basement – or tried to sleep.”
Michael’s mother, Melissa, had seen her athletic son get injured before, including other bone fractures and joint separations. But she knew this was the most serious injury of his burgeoning athletic career. First thing the next morning, Melissa and a sleep-deprived Michael met with Dr. Thompson again at the health system's Saturday morning walk-in clinic, designed particularly for athletes. The walk-in clinic provides care for a variety of sports-related injuries, such as concussions, bone and joint injuries, sprains and strains, for everyone from professional players to weekend warriors.
“I knew from the start that Michael was in good hands,” Melissa says. “He’s known Caitlin for quite a while, and it’s always comforting to have her at the games. I know she won’t let him play if he shouldn’t. And then to get seen right away the next morning by Dr. Thompson was great.”
Dr. Thompson had seen his share of similar clavicle fractures among other athlete patients, including players for the Kansas City Chiefs. The Saturday morning clinic allows him to immediately X-ray the injury and connect patients to orthopedic specialists and physical therapists. “We take exactly the same approach whether the patient plays for the Chiefs or for a high school team,” he says. “Looking at Michael’s X-rays that morning, we saw that he’d need an aggressive intervention to heal properly.”
The intervention meant surgery, so Dr. Thompson contacted his colleague Paul Schroeppel, MD, an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine expert with the health system who also serves as head orthopedic surgeon for the Chiefs. “I’ve seen Chiefs players with similar injuries, and we know that for an athlete to heal really well, the bones have to go back into the right position,” Dr. Schroeppel says.
Something in common with the Chiefs
Michael’s clavicle wasn’t just broken. It was displaced, meaning that where the break occurred the bones had shifted so the broken ends no longer met. The displacement was what caused the telltale deformity that Truhe and Dr. Thompson saw at the game. It would be Dr. Schroeppel’s job to put the bones back together with a metal plate and screws holding everything in place.
Not everyone with this type of fracture needs surgery, Dr. Schroeppel explains. “The bones could heal fairly reliably on their own if they’re only mildly displaced, but even then they could be in a slightly different position that could change the shoulder function somewhat. At Michael’s age and with the degree of displacement he had, surgical repair was needed, and when looking at a return to sports, it’s just faster and safer to stabilize everything.”
Twelve days after his injury, Michael received the same hardware as some Chiefs players during an outpatient surgery. “Everyone was really great when I had the surgery,” Michael says. “They’re just awesome people and took good care of me. They even gave me snacks after the surgery.” (“He really liked the snack,” Melissa added with a laugh.)
Coming back to competitive strength
Recovery wasn’t a sit-back-and-relax plan for Michael. He had his eye on the prize in another sport. The state wrestling tournament was set to begin in February, only 3 months after his surgery. The challenge for Michael’s care team was not to get him moving again but to make sure he didn’t do too much, too fast.
“I was a little sore the day after surgery, but within a few days I was completely fine,” Michael says. Truhe knew that wasn’t quite true. “From my perspective, the biggest challenge is that once a kid like Michael feels good, they need to still let the bones heal and increase activity slowly. Michael felt great almost right away, so we had to actually rein him in a little,” she says with a chuckle.
Melissa agreed. “I was really nervous about letting him wrestle so soon,” she says. “We asked a lot of questions at Michael’s follow-up appointments. Getting all the information and help with his recovery plan made me feel a lot better about his return to sports.”
As soon as he got the green light, Michael began working to regain his strength and mobility. Brian Mills, an occupational therapist and certified hand therapist with the health system, saw Michael a couple weeks after his surgery. While many patients want or need at least 1 therapy session per week for several weeks, Michael clearly demonstrated that he was ready and willing to perform his rehab exercises at home.
“Michael’s diligence in performing the program yielded great results,” Mills says. “I don’t bring age into the healing process much, but in this case, he was already in good physical condition without any prior injuries to the shoulder that could complicate healing.”
Michael gained strength as he followed the rehab plan and was cleared to begin wrestling practice a week before the state championships. “I was a little rusty and a little sore, but over the week I felt more comfortable,” he recalls.
Going to the mat
With just a week of actual practice under his belt, Michael entered the state wrestling meet at 138 pounds, putting him in a lower weight class than the 160 pounds he had packed during football season. “I had a big goal,” he says. “I wanted to win the state title in my weight class, and I felt like I didn’t really have anything to lose.”
With his collarbone stabilized and healed, there was little, if any, risk of re-injury. “The plate in there prevents excess stress on the bone, so we weren’t concerned about that,” Truhe says. “His ability to wrestle at the level he did so soon after his injury is really a testament to his strength prior to surgery and his dedication in working to recover from it.”
Michael fell just short of his goal but finished with a second place state trophy. “Honestly, I didn’t know if I could come back and do that well,” he says. “It was just a great experience.”
Looking toward his senior year in fall 2021, Michael is pumped. “I know my team and I know what we can do,” he says. “I want to see us win the state football championship, and then it would be great to top that off with a state championship in wrestling, too.”
Melissa doesn’t doubt that her son has the drive and dedication to make his dreams come true. “I knew it wouldn’t take him long to get back to full steam,” she says. “He’s been treated just like one of the Chiefs, and it’s great to know we have the health system’s sports medicine team to look out for him.”
Narrator: Watching 17-year-old Michael Solomon practice football with his teammates.
Coach Allen Terrel: Right again, there we go.
Narrator: It's hard to believe that less than a year ago, this Blue Valley High School senior sustained an injury so serious, it ended his high school football season.
Michael Solomon: I heard it snap and I was like, it's broken.
Narrator: Michael describes the moment his collarbone fractured when he was tackled by another player during a game last November.
Michael Solomon: I got landed on and it actually snapped in half, and I think it was broken before that, so that made it worse.
Caitlin Truhe: With this injury, I knew immediately that something was wrong because of his body language.
Narrator: Caitlin Truhe is an athletic trainer with The University of Kansas Health System. She works with student athletes to train and prevent injuries. Truhe was on the sideline the day Michael was injured.
Caitlin Truhe: There's varying degrees of collarbone fractures. Michael's case the fracture was displaced enough that he needed surgery in order to repair that, so then it could heal.
Narrator: The next day Michael was able to get into the health system's weekend clinic for an X-ray to confirm his broken collarbone. Soon after, he was in the hands of orthopedic surgeon Dr. Paul Schroeppel, sports medicine expert and head orthopedic surgeon for the Kansas City Chiefs.
Coach Allen Terrel: Having somebody on site all the time is huge for me, and it also gives me a comfort level of knowing if a kid is injured or if they have a sickness or an illness that they're going to be taken care of properly immediately.
Narrator: Michael has surgery and is now back at it.
Caitlin Truhe: He did really well. After he had surgery, he was actually pain-free, and so he was ready to do activity long before the doctor said that he was ready to do it.
Narrator: In fact, this past February, Michael, who is also a wrestler, competed in a regional high school wrestling championship and came in first place. He took second in the state competition.