Getting Back In The Game

Orthopaedic specialists give new life to pro athletes and weekend warriors.

March 07, 2016 Robin Heffler

Not long ago after she swam her first race at age 8, Tumua Anae ’10 set a lofty goal: competing in the Olympics. At the time, she didn’t realize her chance would come not in swimming but in water polo. But her Olympic dream was threatened in 2009 when she hurt her shoulder during water polo practice at USC.

“It was painful to swim, to rotate my arm around, and it was stiff, taking a lot of icing, resting and some days of sitting out practice,” says Anae, a three-time, first-team All-American and member of USC’s 2010 NCAA championship team. “I was playing through the pain, but it was affecting my performance because I couldn’t practice enough.”

On her trainer’s advice, she visited George “Rick” Hatch, assistant professor of orthopaedic surgery at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. Hatch is one of the faculty surgeons in the USC Center for Sports Medicine, and these orthopaedic surgeons are the official team doctors of USC Trojan Athletics. He treats injuries in competitive athletes and weekend warriors alike.

Hatch aimed to boost Anae’s movement and eliminate the pain. Using tiny, precise tools and an arthroscope — a flexible tube fitted with a miniature camera and light — he operated through small incisions and sewed Anae’s torn labrum, a ring of cartilage, back onto her shoulder socket.

Three months later, Anae started training full time for the Olympics. “Six months after surgery, I could play water polo again and do everything else I was doing before, including volleyball, lifeguarding and other outdoor activities I enjoy, all without pain,” she says. “The surgery was vital for me to make the Olympic team.”

As goalie, Anae helped the U.S. bring home the women’s water polo gold medal from London in 2012. Today, she’s training for the July world championships and is considering committing to the 2016 Olympics team.

Quicker Healing Time

Anae is one of the lucky ones. Among athletes who hurt their shoulders through overhead motions, like throwing, swimming, spiking balls or swinging a racquet, some of the more routine surgeries fail to help, Hatch says.

“Sometimes after surgery, they can lose range of motion, and for certain types of injuries, even with surgery, a significant percentage can’t return to throwing again,” says Hatch, who treats players on USC’s football, men’s and women’s water polo, women’s soccer and women’s basketball teams. “By doing the surgery arthroscopically and with minimally invasive techniques, we can reduce the trauma to the joint as well as limit the amount of suture material used. Excess suture material can limit shoulder motion and injure cartilage. Te newer techniques also provide faster healing, which means people can get back to their sport sooner.”

Patients also benefit from having experienced surgeons based at an academic medical center.

“We have faculty who can cover almost any sports medicine problem — including complex conditions and revisions — and use the most advanced procedures and conduct research on new ones,” says C. Thomas Vangsness Jr., professor of orthopaedic surgery, who oversees sports medicine education at the Keck School and is the team doctor for Trojan basketball. Since 1997, he’s co-directed the USC Center for Sports Medicine alongside James E. Tibone.

One recent addition to the program is prominent orthopaedic surgeon Seth Gamradt, who has served as a team physician for athletes at UCLA and the New York Giants, as well as U.S. Women’s Soccer. “USC has a history of great athletes and an excellent sports medicine program,” he says. “As faculty physicians, wecan draw on research findings to continually improve treatments for everyone from elite athletes to neighborhood basketball league players.”

Last year, the center’s surgeons repaired torn cartilage and other soft tissue in the shoulder and knee and fixed dislocated shoulders and bone fractures in more than 300 athletes.

Shaun Cooley is a repeat customer. After Cooley shattered his elbow snowboarding in Utah in 2006, doctors at a nearby hospital told him that even with surgery his arm bones might detach again in 10 or 20 years, he says.

So Cooley, now 33 and a software engineering manager, followed the recommendation of a friend and flew home to Los Angeles to see Hatch. After surgery to install plates and screws that hold the bones together, Cooley was able to snowboard again on the toughest terrain. He felt back to himself again.

When he tore a knee ligament five years later in an ice hockey game, Cooley returned to Hatch for surgery. “The next March I hiked up Mount Whitney to prove that my knee was good again,” he says. “I had no problems with my knee, but I was out of breath because I had put on a few pounds during the recovery period.”

The Right Care

For Mark Christensen, 44, playing kickball with his young sons before school one day led to a broken arm that refused to heal even after two surgeries. As a result, his photography business suffered because he couldn’t carry the 60 pounds of equipment he needed.

“He was frustrated and very pessimistic when I met him,” says USC surgeon Reza Omid, who performed Christensen’s third surgery in 2011. “I cleaned up the ends of the bones to remove the fibrous tissue from two surgeries that could have prevented healing, and used a very large plate and stronger screws because he’s a big guy — 6 feet 6 inches and 280 pounds — which probably contributed to why the other surgeries didn’t work.”

Today, Christensen is busy with a new cooking business and can comfortably carry equipment when he has occasional photo assignments. But he’s most grateful for the boost in his personal life. “Not having use of my left arm for three years affected doing things with my family,” he says. “The first time I was able to play catch with my middle boy, I started crying when I could lift my glove with my left arm.”

Learn more or call 800-USC-CARE.