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UCL Surgery Keeps Dreams on Track

McKenna Lester playing softball

March 01, 2024

McKenna Lester’s softball career has been a bit of a rollercoaster.

First, she had to recover from an ACL surgery at just 15. She came back and rounded out high school with a .449 batting average and a trip to the district championship game. But it was in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, and she didn’t get recruited to a D1 school like she dreamed. Instead, she fell in love with Kansas City Kansas Community College.

When she arrived at KCKCC, she was asked to play a new position – 1st base. She tackled the challenge with her usual dedication, spending every day of her winter break in the gym, at hitting practice and breaking down footage.

By the end of the 2021-22 season, the Blue Devils had gone to the NJCAA Division II National Tournament. Individually, McKenna racked up a .459 batting average and was named a DII All-American.

So, when she returned in the fall of 2022, expectations were at a peak for McKenna’s second year at KCKCC.

Crashing down with an injury

It was a routine, August pre-season practice. McKenna was the cutoff for a ball thrown from the outfield, headed to home plate. The throw was offline, so she dove to catch it and felt a pop in her forearm.

“It did not feel like I tore anything,” she says.

In fact, she declined to have Kylie Heim, the KCKCC athletic trainer, examine it that day. It was only 24 hours later that McKenna admitted the pain was getting worse and went to have it examined.

“She said I needed to get it checked out, and I immediately started crying,” McKenna says. “Those words can never be good.”

Heim suspected McKenna tore her left ulnar collateral ligament and immediately referred her to orthopedic surgeon Vincent Key, MD, at the health system.

“We’ve built a very strong rapport and working relationship with Dr. Key,” said Heim. “All our athletes have their preference, but we recommend sending any knees or elbows to Dr. Key for repair.”

After an exam and an MRI, Dr. Key confirmed that McKenna had torn her UCL and needed to have surgery to reconstruct it.

“My parents raised me to believe that it’s not what happens to you, but it’s how you react,” McKenna says. “I can’t change it. So I can have my sadness, but we have to move on. This is the hand I was dealt, and I’m ready.”

The first step was learning about the UCL. Many people know UCL reconstruction by the name Tommy John surgery, and that rang a bell for McKenna. With that recognition, she began to learn about the surgery and recovery process.

“I was like, ‘this is a big deal,’” she says. “I actually want to be a physical therapist, so I thought, ‘let’s take this and learn from it.’”

These are blessings, I'm way stronger than I was. I'm healthier. My mental side is better. The whole experience was very rewarding and humbling in a sense."

McKenna Lester

McKenna had surgery in September 2022. It went well. So well, she felt good enough to pop into the KCK training facility the next day. While she couldn’t get right back into her routine, McKenna was ready to start the 10 months of physical therapy and recovery that it would take to get back in playing shape.

She completed PT with Heim at KCKCC, but in close collaboration with the orthopedics team at the health system.

“I look to Dr. Key and his protocol above all else,” Heim says.

That approach involves focusing on the athlete’s whole kinetic chain – not just their injury. For McKenna, that meant she did lower body training while her elbow healed. She threw herself into recovery with the same grit and dedication she had always applied.

“She’s the kind of kid that will do anything you ask her to do, and she’ll probably go above and beyond,” Heim said. “Of course, I’m there to motivate her, but there wasn’t much motivation that had to come from me. She’s a self-starter in that way.”

McKenna completed rehab with Heim 5-6 days per week and had a smooth recovery until one day she noticed odd sensations in her hand.

“In month 3 or 4 I lost feeling in my fingers and started freaking out,” McKenna says.

Heim reached out to the health system for advice and got McKenna in to see Dr. Key. Thankfully it was a normal side effect and was easily treated with a prescription. But that quick access to her care team was appreciated by both McKenna and Heim.

“Being able to have that open line of communication, where at any point I don’t have to second-guess myself or wait for the next follow-up, it’s very helpful,” Heim said. “It’s just an email or a text and I’m able to hear back, almost always very quickly, and we go from there.”

Dr. Key’s reassurance during this time – and throughout the entire process – was also very helpful.

“I know McKenna felt very comfortable with Dr. Key as well,” Heim says. “Doctors can be very intimidating, but I don’t get that feedback from my athletes when they go see him.”

McKenna Lester recovering from injury

Climbing back up

After 10 months and one red-shirt season, McKenna’s UCL was fully healed. However, she suffered another ACL tear that kept her sidelined for an additional 6 months in 2023.

Now as she enters her final season of eligibility at KCKCC, McKenna has come out swinging – literally. In the first 4 games, she’s batting .538 and has committed to play for Rockhurst University next year, where she will work toward a degree in physical therapy.

Much like a real rollercoaster, at the end of this journey, McKenna is looking back and calling it a great experience despite the bumps along the way.

“These are blessings,” she says. “I'm way stronger than I was. I'm healthier. My mental side is better. The whole experience was very rewarding and humbling in a sense.”

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