The pop Tanya Tanhehco heard as she fell to the ground told her she would not be playing much lacrosse for the rest of the season. Pain shot through her knee as she landed. She collapsed to the field, convinced she had broken her knee.
Tanhehco, a pre-season All-American for the Ohio Wesleyan Battling Bishops, had secured top scoring honors on the team, amassing 29 goals and three assists. However, on April 9, while playing against Kenyon College, one step ended her Division-3 career early. Tanhehco planted her foot, heard the pop, and fell to the ground. "When I first hit the ground, I felt a lot of pain," she says. "I was really scared."
The team's head trainer and student athletic trainer carried Tanhehco off the field. The head trainer dealt an early blow, telling her that, although she had not broken her knee, she had likely torn her ACL. "He was sure I had torn it," she says. "He sent me to the hospital right away." An MRI confirmed Tanhehco tore her ACL and her meniscus. Her lacrosse days were over.
Tanhehco began strength training and conditioning with a physical therapist to attempt to rehabilitate the knee. As the final six games of her senior season ticked away, however, the therapist could not improve Tanhehco's range of motion. Surgery began to look imminent. "It was so frustrating, not being able to bend my knee all the way," Tanhehco says. "I agreed to the surgery, because there was obviously something still wrong."
On July 24, the former attacker underwent arthroscopic surgery to repair her ACL tear using a graft from her hamstring. Tanhehco walked into the hospital at 7 a.m. and hobbled out on crutches nine hours later. Sent home with an immobilizer on her knee, she was told to do leg raises and knee bends. "I was supposed to do the exercises, but I didn't do them," she says, with a hint of regret in her voice. "My recovery took longer because I didn't."
As she gained strength, Tanhehco headed back to the gym. Many hours of biking, weightlifting, and backwards walking on a treadmill helped her recover some of her lost strength and stability. At the conclusion of her postoperative therapy, however, Tanhehco again gave up on her exercise regimen. As a result, she says, her knee is stiff and weak. "If I could change what I didn't do after therapy was over, I would," she says. "I would exercise it everyday so that it would not be as painful and it would heal a little faster."
Tanhehco, now 22, teaches preschool and will soon begin coaching lacrosse at North Carolina's Guilford College. Storytime is difficult because her stiff knee will not allow her to sit cross-legged. She says she keeps her leg out to the side most of the time while playing with the children because it is difficult to bend her leg. With more physical therapy and strength training, her leg will one day return to its old shape, but Tanhehco admits her neglect of post-op exercises set back her recovery. A bit wiser now, Tanhehco says she realizes that an ACL reconstruction is just as much her responsibility as her doctor's. When she begins coaching, she says, she will tell her players to stretch often, strengthen their legs as part of their conditioning to reduce the risk of an ACL injury.
For patients about to undergo ACL surgery, Tanhehco has plenty of advice: Do your post-op exercises, strengthen your legs before surgery, and do not expect to walk right away. "It will get better as time goes by," she says. "Don't give up, and don't get frustrated."
Image courtesy of Ohio Wesleyan University.