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Reconstructed and Resilient

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Reconstructed and Resilient

October 25, 2000
By Lindsey Christie, Knee1 Staff

Heidi Preuss is a veteran when it comes to knee injuries. Over the past twenty years, she has undergone eight surgeries and made a comeback from each with hard work, dedication, and an excellent attitude. Heidi has maintained an active lifestyle and continues to ski and hike frequently. When asked how she feels now, Heidi says, “I have little-to-no pain, full range of motion, and no instability. My knees work better than most people who have never even had surgery.”

One month after Heidi Preuss took fourth in the women’s downhill at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York she “blew out” her knee for the first time. Heidi had just finished a course in the U.S. Nationals at Squaw Valley when she went down. Out-of-breath and screaming in pain, she grabbed her left knee and locked it. Heidi attributes her injury to the washboards that covered the bottom of the course and wrenched her knees repeatedly. Still writhing in pain, Heidi recalls that the ski patrol had to pry her fingers off of her knee so that they could splint her leg.

Heidi was rushed to one of sports medicine’s finest knee surgeons, Dr. Richard Steadman, who was still practicing in the Lake Tahoe area at that time. A physical exam revealed that Heidi had completely dislocated her knee, tearing everything but the posterior horn. Within an hour of injuring her knee, Heidi was taken into the operating room where she underwent five hours of surgery; Dr. Steadman was able to stitch her ACL back together with 16 stitches.

Heidi was back in her hospital room for less than an hour when Dr. Steadman walked in and said, “Okay, Heidi, let’s do leg lifts.” She was incredulous as she looked down at her leg, which sat immobile on the hospital bed wrapped in a plaster cast that extended from her thigh all the way down to her ankle. Dr. Steadman told Heidi, “I can be the most brilliant surgeon in the world, but I can only do 50 percent of the work, you have to do the other 50 percent in rehabilitation.” So Heidi began her rehabilitation that same afternoon by doing leg lifts with Dr. Steadman. The next morning she peddled a stationary bike with her bad leg stretched out on a stool beside her.

Dr. Steadman kept Heidi in a cast for eight weeks and had her doing rigorous physical therapy. His motto was, “If you want something to heal like a rubber band, you must use it like a rubber band.” This forward thinking was unique in the 80s, a time when many doctors would have kept Heidi in a cast for as long as one year. After being released from five months of therapy, Heidi continued to work out with a stationary bicycle and Cybex machines.

Heidi’s hard work paid off, and by the next fall, she was back on the slopes and training for the next World Cup Competition. Exactly 11 months and three weeks after her first injury, Heidi went down again while racing World Cup in Aspen, Colorado; this time she blew out her right knee. Heidi headed straight back to Dr. Steadman, who operated for nearly seven hours to repair Heidi’s shattered knee, using her patella tendon to repair the torn ACL.

Heidi worked through her second round of rehabilitation and managed to regain the strength and range of motion that she had lost in her right knee. She did not give up skiing and continued to race. Heidi went back to Steadman a couple of times for “spring cleanings” in which he removed the scar tissue that had built up from her surgeries. Amazingly, Heidi was left with nearly seven-eighths of her own cartilage intact, due to Steadman’s expertise and steady hands.

It was 1985 when Heidi struck out for the third time. She was racing in yet another World Cup competition when her left knee gave out, leaving her with a torn medial collateral ligament and a chunk out of her tibia (shin bone). Dr. Steadman put her back together again and even joked by saying, “We should put zippers in your knees so that we don’t have to open you up every time you come in.” Dr. Steadman also told Heidi, “If you want to walk when you’re 40, you’ll retire now.”

Heidi has had some minor mishaps with her knees since 1985 and every time she has headed out to the Steadman Hawkins Clinic in Colorado to see her favorite surgeon, Dr. Steadman. When asked to describe her relationship with Dr. Steadman, Heidi says, “I trust him like a father, he is the only one who is allowed to look at my knees.”

Heidi’s third knee injury only slowed her down a bit. She followed Dr. Steadman’s advice and does not race competitively anymore or “push the boundaries” and realizes that she cannot participate in reactionary sports that involve cutting, like soccer, volleyball, basketball, and racquetball. Although she misses those sports, she stays active by recreationally skiing throughout the winter and hiking when the weather gets warm.

Heidi was 38 years old when she hiked from Georgia to Maine through rain, bugs, heat, and snow with a 40-pound pack on her back. She started the Appalachian Trail (AT) on April 7th, 1999 and cruised the trail effortlessly, finishing up 2,160 miles at the peak of Mt. Katahdin on August 28th (well ahead of her anticipated finish date of October 7th). On the trail, Heidi often thought of what Dr. Steadman told her 14 years before and the irony of it; she was nearly 40 but she was still walking, a lot. Heidi describes her hike on the AT as “Quite a Ride! I got to hiking and I just couldn’t stop. No town could hold me, no blowdowns could slow me down.” Apparently, her two bum knees didn’t stop her either.

Maybe it’s the Nikken magnets that she wraps on her knees when they get sore, maybe it’s the glucosamine and cetyl myristoleate supplements that she takes, maybe it was Steadman’s steady hand, or maybe it’s her grit and determination that keep Heidi Preuss going.

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