December 17, 2021
Maggie Richardson, a freshman at Blue Valley High School in Overland Park, KS, jumped up to spike a volleyball during a pre-tryout practice – a routine play that she had done plenty of times. But this time her landing was different. When Maggie came down, she felt a shift in her knee.
“It was kind of dramatic, I’m not gonna lie,” Maggie recalls, laughing. But it was no laughing matter at the time. In August 2020, Maggie had torn the ACL and meniscus in her left knee from the landing.
Caitlin Truhe, an athletic trainer with the Sports Medicine and Performance Center at The University of Kansas Health System, was at the practice to assess Maggie’s injury.
“I could see immediately how it happened,” recalls Truhe. “It was non contact. She jumped up and leaned on her leg and her landing didn’t feel right. So we got her off the court, got her knee wrapped up and gave her instructions for the evening."
Maggie’s instructions? Go see a physician at the health system.
It was Maggie’s mother Audra’s turn to carpool for practice the night of the injury. Audra sat in her car during the end of practice, and she was confused as to why Maggie hadn’t come to the car yet.
“I got the texts that Maggie hurt herself, and Caitlin helped her walk outside,” Audra remembers. “Maggie was trying to walk, but she really couldn't put any weight on it. It was extremely painful for her.”
That night was the first time Truhe had met Maggie, but it was not the first time she had met Audra. Truhe knew Audra from her oldest daughter, Ashlyn, who is a softball player at Blue Valley and 2 grades above Maggie.
“It was nice to be able to know Audra even though I didn’t know Maggie,” Truhe says. “There was a little bit more comfort in that interaction with Maggie.”
That comfort helped Audra and Maggie take Truhe’s advice. The next day, Maggie was seen by advanced practice provider Stephanie Caldwell at the office of orthopedic surgeon Bryan Vopat, MD, also with the health system’s sports medicine program. After an X-ray, Audra and Maggie were told a torn ACL was likely, but the provider recommended an MRI to confirm.
Two days later, Maggie received an MRI on her knee at the health system’s Sports Medicine and Performance Center location at Arrowhead Stadium – the same place professional athletes are treated. That very day Dr. Vopat reached out to Audra to discuss Maggie’s injury. Audra and Maggie’s father, Shaun, were impressed by Dr. Vopat’s professionalism and compassion, something they hadn’t always received from doctors outside the health system.
“I can say now after being through it, there’s a difference between going with a sports medicine orthopedic doctor and just an orthopedic doctor,” Audra says. “There's a difference in how they approach things. Dr. Vopat called us, said Maggie’s got an ACL and meniscus tear and she's going to need ACL reconstruction.
“At the time it was so overwhelming as a parent. It's so rare for doctors to make a personal effort to provide information and personally talk to you. To treat you as a person rather than just patient X.”
Road to recovery
Maggie admitted that, at the time, her injury felt like it was the worst thing that could happen to her.
“In my mind, I was like, what’s worse than this?” she recalls. “Sports are a source of happiness for me. It was really sad to get that taken away.”
But deep down, Maggie knew it wasn’t the worst thing – and she knew it was something she could come back from. So when Dr. Vopat suggested she jump on physical therapy right away – even before surgery – Maggie was game.
“I immediately said, ‘Yes. I want to get on this,’” Maggie remembers. “I want to be back to sports as fast as possible. I'm ready.”
Thus, the therapy began. Maggie was set up with Kyle Martin, a physical therapist on the health system’s sports medicine team, to do presurgery exercises.
“We did about 6 visits of physical therapy before Maggie had surgery,” Martin says. “Our focus was making sure she had full range of motion and a decrease in swelling, and we focused on her quad activation to help her optimize her outcomes after surgery.”
Maggie had ACL reconstruction surgery and a meniscus repair on September 4, just short of a month after the day of her injury. After a successful surgery, the next step for Maggie was to see Martin twice a week for postsurgery physical therapy. A long road was ahead for Maggie, but Martin could tell that she was ready for the challenge.
“She handled it really well,” Martin says. “With ACL injuries, specifically after surgery, there's a large psychological barrier that comes with the recovery. She set her mind to recovery. I never had to worry about her not doing exercises at home.”
During physical therapy, Martin’s main goal was to return to Maggie her strength and range of motion. The hope was to allow her to return to softball, Maggie’s main sport, for summer 2021. But the first step was to get her walking again. After spending a few weeks on crutches, Maggie was able to walk without them within a month following surgery.
“She went into physical therapy that day and Kyle told her he wasn't giving back her crutches until she walked to me,” Audra recalls. “So she did her workout and walked from where they do the ice and walked out. That was a big day.”
Return to the diamond
Fast forward 6 months full of training and conditioning. It was time to put Maggie through an ACL assessment to see if she was ready to return to sports.
“Kyle ran her through the gamut of things that she had to pass,” Audra remembers. “He told her beforehand, ‘It's not likely you're going to pass this. It’s normal.’ Well, she ended up passing everything except 2 subcategories.”
On May 10, 2021, Maggie passed the assessment and was cleared for club softball. But her journey wasn’t over. Although she was cleared, the next step for Maggie was to make sure reinjury did not occur. The last thing she wanted was another ACL injury.
To be proactive and prevent future injuries, Maggie began attending the ACL bridge program at the health system’s Sports Medicine and Performance Center location in Overland Park. This program, led by athletic trainer Krisha Kackley, helps athletes learn proper technique with stretching, jumping, landing, strength and movement.
“For these athletes who have been hurt, it’s so important to transition back into sport and recover adequately,” says Kackley. “It's often misunderstood that after ACL reconstructions, if you go through therapy, 9 months later you're good to go. That's just not the case at all.
“So our ACL bridge program focuses on treating athletes from that physical therapy state of mind to more of a performance and sport state of mind in a safe manner.”
The ACL bridge classes not only helped Maggie recover – they helped her realize that sometimes good things can come from setbacks. In this case, it was the ACL bridge program that made Maggie a better player. “Before the injury, I just did what felt best for me,” Maggie says. “When I was working with Krisha, the first day she took a video of me doing my jumps. And at the end of the program, she took a video and showed me the progress. You could definitely tell a difference.
“I learned how to be explosive when I jump and how to land properly. I implemented that into my sports, and it's helped me become a better athlete and learn different fundamentals that I didn't think I needed before.”
Now a sophomore at Blue Valley with a summer of club softball under her belt, Maggie plans to play softball for her school in the spring. Thanks to the health system’s Sports Medicine and Performance Center, she’ll return to sports with a renewed mindset on how to play the game. But maybe more important, she has a new career focus in mind as well.
“I went to physical therapy, met all these new people and saw how fun it was,” Maggie says. “I thought, it'd be so cool if I could be in the medical field and work with people who also have had major injuries. And I could say, ‘Hey, I've been through something like that as well.’ And I could help them through that.”
Patient testimonial: As with all treatments, individual patient results vary. It is important to discuss your treatment options with your healthcare provider.