CLARION, PA (EYT/D9) — Jameson McIlwain jumped in the air to attempt a header.
When he landed, his left knee buckled. He collapsed on the grass football pitch at Karns City High School, knees throbbing, a million thoughts racing through his mind.
He had never suffered a serious injury before. He feared it was one.
“I heard a few pops,” McIlwain said. “I couldn’t put any weight on it. I tried to get up right away, and I couldn’t. I just sat there and was like, ‘What am I doing? What am I supposed to do?'”
The Clarion Area High School sophomore, who plays for the Clarion-Limestone football team, had no idea at the time that this heartbreaking moment would be the start of a historic odyssey of science and perseverance.
The days that followed progressed like any of the thousands of other athletes who suffered knee injuries. The initial prognosis was encouraging: a sprained MCL.
A little rest, lots of ice, and some good old-fashioned TLC and McIlwain would be back kicking the football in no time.
But the then 15-year-old – McIlwain turned 16 on December 10 – felt deep down that something much more serious was wrong with his sore left knee.
(Jameson McIlwain, a sophomore at Clarion Area High School who plays for the Clarion-Limestone football team, was injured Sept. 13 in Karns City, beginning a journey that included advanced ACL surgery)
He tried to overcome the injury, participating in training as much as he could.
He was told to rest again for a week. He did and edited it again. He was told to take an even longer break, this time two weeks, but the knee still wasn’t straight.
Physiotherapy followed. Still no improvement.
All the while, the McIlwain family fought with their insurance company to approve an MRI.
Finally, another doctor was able to order the much-needed test nearly two months after McIwain’s injury. He revealed that the damage to his knee was much more serious than an MCL sprain.
He had ruptured his ACL. A complete tear.
McIlwain suddenly had to face the cold reality of his situation. He was considering surgery, then eight to ten months of arduous rehabilitation before he could even hope to be allowed to play sports again.
His spring soccer season with the Clarion River Valley Strikers was over. So did his high school basketball season at Clarion-Limestone.
Jameson felt this sting and this desperation deeply.
But then fate intervened.
McIlwain was referred to Dr. Matthew Varacallo, medical director of orthopedic robotic surgery at Penn Highlands Healthcare in DuBois, for his operation.
The family had no idea at the time that Dr. Varacallo was pioneering an innovative fertilized ACL surgical technique.
The procedure involves extracting marrow from the tibia, a bone in the lower leg that contains a multitude of growth hormones and stem cells.
After the marrow is centrifuged into a concentrate, it is mixed with bone graft. Small tunnels are then made in the femur and tibia to place the graft during surgery. The bone graft mixture and stem cells/growth factors are then injected into these tunnels to stimulate them. The tendon, which is used to repair or replace the ACL, turns into a ligament faster and the tunnels in the bone heal faster.
The results were startling.
“This is truly a cutting-edge procedure,” Dr. Varacallo said in a Feb. 4 statement on the Penn Highlands Healthcare website. “In traditional ACL surgeries, pressurized tunnels can be risk factors for re-injury because they can take up to six or seven months to heal. However, with the Fertilized ACL procedure, the tunnels heal faster because the graft begins to integrate more quickly into the body.In fact, four weeks after surgery, you can’t even see the bone tunnels.
Still, McIlwain and his family took a cautious approach.
They couldn’t quite believe the claims and they didn’t want to have hope.
“(Dr Varacallo) told us, ‘Hey, just so you know, I’m doing this new procedure where I’m removing bone marrow from his leg and then injecting it back into his knee and we’re finding good results,'” said Jameson’s mother, Trish McIlwain. “I was like, ‘Oh, okay. Thank you. What kind of good results? Six to eight months?’ »
Try as few as four.
Jameson and his family were in disbelief.
It was not an easy process, however.
Jameson had to strengthen his left leg and knee before the operation with physical therapy. The surgery itself was just as invasive as a typical ACL reconstruction and had the same pitfalls.
But Jameson overcame all the hurdles pretty well.
“I haven’t had a lot of pain,” Jameson said. “But it was really difficult to get around for the first few weeks. I didn’t have a wheelchair, so I used my computer desk chair to get around the house.
As the days and weeks passed, Jameson felt stronger. He was doing things in weeks that it usually takes other athletes who have gone under the knife months to accomplish.
His recovery exceeded even Dr. Varacallo’s expectations.
Jameson was fully cleared on March 10 – just three months and seven days after his surgery.
“He’s never knocked out an athlete as early as Jameson,” Trish said. “He sent Jameson’s numbers to Marshall University – that’s the only other place that does this surgery – and he outperformed the athletes who had surgery there.”
Jameson was shocked and thrilled to have recovered and been cleared so quickly.
“I was just amazed,” he said. “I was planning to come back in the fall. As soon as the doctor told me I could be cleared in four months, I was like, ‘Oh, maybe I can come back for spring football season and play for the Strikers. Even being cleared in three months amazed me.
Much of the credit for Jameson’s quick comeback goes to him.
“Even the doctor said, all the praise goes to Jameson for his hard work,” Trish said. “He was doing three days of physiotherapy. He worked with our school athletic trainer five days a week. He really wanted to play basketball.
He didn’t quite make it back in time for that, though he made it a point to try to be at every Clarion basketball practice and attend every game while recovering.
When he was cleared to play football again, his club’s coaches with the Strikers were stunned.
They came up with a new nickname for Jameson.
“They just can’t believe it,” Jameson said. “I know how they feel.”
The brace he wears is nothing like the bulky gear that most athletes recovering from ACL surgery have to wear. It’s just a support round and even he may soon lose.
He’s not required to wear it as a sprinter on the Clarion Area track team this spring in a co-op with North Clarion.
Jameson feels almost 100%. His speed – such a weapon for him on the football pitch – has returned. The thing he struggled with the most was the mental aspect of his quick recovery.
Like most players who suffer from serious knee injuries, there is always this fear lurking in the back of his mind that it could happen again.
“The doctor said there was a mental part to it,” Trish said. “He said every athlete goes through this and I hope he gets it.”
Jameson, however, trusted his knee. He was in tune with what it felt like. He was aware of when he felt strong and when it was time to back off – just a little.
“They’re actually worried about my right leg, hurting that one, because my left leg is already stronger than my right,” he said.
Rehabilitation was also a challenge. It was uncharted territory.
Jameson was ready to do things at six weeks that most athletes can’t do after several months of surgery.
Samantha Morgan, a certified athletic trainer at Penn Highlands Healthcare as well as Clearfield Area High School, also helped Jameson recover. She provided him with the proper protocols in rehab to speed up his healing time.
“Rehab was boring for him,” Trish said. “Sam said, ‘You know, he must be leaving physical therapy exhausted. It must be a real workout. She managed to get him on the right protocols.
“I slept really well the night after that,” Jameson added.
This experience taught Jameson a lot about himself, about his limitations, both physical and mental.
Above all, he is grateful.
I am grateful that this new surgical technique was able to get him back on the field in a fraction of the time it usually takes for an athlete to return.
Jameson now knows that anything is possible.
“If you set a goal,” Jameson said. “You can do it.”