By Tom Keppeler, Knee1 Staff
Whenever Allisen Wuerfl’s patients complain about their aching knees, she can say, quite literally, “I feel your pain.”
As an occupational therapist who has been through three knee surgeries and countless hours of rehabilitation, Wuerfl, 23, understands what it is like to want to heal so badly it hurts.
Wuerfl’s saga started at age 14. While playing soccer during her freshman year of high school in Southampton, New York, she kicked the game ball at the same time as an opponent player, which sent Wuefl to the ground in pain. Her doctors told her that she had injured her anterior cruciate ligament, but had not torn it completely. After three months of physical therapy, Wuerfl jumped back into sports—this time, on a basketball court.
Wuerfl could not have predicted the spell of bad knee luck that was about to befall her. Not long after her return to sports, she twisted her right knee again while playing basketball. After another three months of rehabilitation, Wuerfl ran confidently onto the practice field for the high school lacrosse season, thinking lightning could never strike three times in the same spot.
It did. Wuefl soon found herself on the ground with pain once again in her right knee. She had had enough. Wuerfl’s parents insisted upon expert care for the injury, and sent her to Manhattan’s Dr. Russell Warren (who was featured in a Knee1 Webcast) for an ACL reconstruction using a graft from her patellar tendon. She endured nearly a year of rehabilitation, and by the next spring, felt she was physically ready for her sophomore year lacrosse season. She was wrong. Shortly into the season, Wuerfl dropped, this time twisting her left knee. “Emotionally, I was a mess,” Wuerfl told Knee1 in a phone interview. “It seemed I couldn’t do anything without injuring my knees.”
Wuerfl remained determined to return to sports, however. After arthroscopic surgery to repair her damaged meniscus, Wuerfl joined the swimming team, where she competed for the remainder of her high-school career. Her doctor, Southampton-based Patrick De Rosa, advised her to avoid contact sports because her left ACL remained torn. Her knee troubles seemed to be behind her. For seven years, Wuerfl’s knees gave her little trouble, but she still remembered the long road to recovery. Her experiences drew her closer to people who were in pain, and she soon decided on a career in occupational therapy.
Wuerfl knew that she soon would be performing tasks such as hoisting patients out of bed and supporting them as they walk, and understood that her knees needed to be strong to do so. “I didn’t want to be pivoting with patients, have my knee give out and have us both end up on the floor,” she says. She decided to return to Dr. De Rosa to have an ACL reconstruction on her left knee, in which he replaced her torn ligament with one from a cadaver just after her graduation from Duquesne University in May. When Wuerfl showed up to her job interviews soon thereafter, she hobbled in on crutches. She recuperated in just enough time to start her new job as an occupational therapist, although she admits she still limps a little.
For a while, especially during her slew of high school injuries, Wuerfl thought she would never get better. The experience, albeit frustrating, gave her empathy for the patients she sees every day, she says. “I can relate to my patients a lot now,” says Wuerfl. “I’ve been through surgery, I’ve felt pain—not as much as many of them have been through, but I know what it’s like.”
If she did it all over again, Wuerfl says she would have had her left knee repaired earlier. “I would have had it fixed right away,” she says. “It would have been so much easier.” She says knee surgery is not for everyone, however. “You really have to weigh it,” she says. “If you’re young, do it, because your whole life’s ahead of you; but if you’re older, it might not be worth the pain.”
Wuerfl still can not kneel on her left knee, and has trouble fully extending her leg, but she says it will improve with time. “It’s still a little painful,” she says. “But every day, I feel better and better.”