Noelle has always been active. After years of ballet, she decided to shift her focus to other sports in high school. She ran cross country, played tennis – and found an instant fit with basketball.
"I had been shooting around for a long time, and basketball just seemed to come naturally to me," she says.
In November 2018, the sophomore was running drills with her team at practice. It was the day before their first game of the season, and Noelle was excited and focused. Suddenly, she felt a strange sensation in her knee.
"I stepped on my leg weird, and it felt like the interior of my knee was rolling over itself,"
she remembers. "As soon as I hit the ground, I thought 'Oh no. This isn't good.' "
Noelle tried to put on a brave face, but more upsetting than the pain was the fear that she could be out for the season – before it even began.
"I was really hoping it wasn't serious," she says. "I knew my teammates were counting on me and each other to bring their best for the season, and I didn't want to let them down."
Focusing on next steps after an ACL injury
The next morning, however, Noelle's knee was still in pain – so she sought the opinion of a familiar expert. Noelle's dad is Troy Smurawa, M.D., Director of Pediatric Sports Medicine at the Children's Health℠ Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine.
"When she said her leg was still hurting, and that it was stiff and swollen, I knew that wasn't a good sign," says Dr. Smurawa.
Luckily, Children's Health Andrews Institute offers same-day appointments, so Dr. Smurawa and Noelle headed over for imaging that morning. An MRI confirmed Dr. Smurawa's fear: Noelle had torn her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and would need surgery.
"When I came out and heard the bad news, my dad comforted me," Noelle says. But quickly, the determined daughter and dad turned their focus on next steps.
"Before we even met with the surgeon, Noelle met with a physical therapist to start working on prehabilitation, or ways that she could work on her pre-surgical range of motion and strengthening," explains Dr. Smurawa.
The physical therapist helped prepare Noelle for what to expect after surgery and gave her simple exercises to prepare.
"I was a little nervous, but I knew I was in good hands," Noelle says.
From surgery to strengthening, Noelle finds support
One week later, Noelle had surgery to repair her ACL at Children's Health Andrews Institute.
While Dr. Smurawa had met with many patients who needed surgery, he experienced the entire situation with fresh eyes as a parent.
"It helps you understand even more what parents go through," he says. "I think the different perspective I had is that when she tore her ACL, I didn't just see today, tomorrow or surgery – I knew what the next 12 months were going to be like."
Noelle took time to rest and heal from the surgery, but soon, it was time to begin the journey of rehabilitation. She began physical therapy twice a week with Ben Seagraves, PT, DPT, SCS, ATC.
Going into the process, Noelle knew that recovery would take work, but she admits she didn't fully comprehend the amount of dedication it would require.
"It was surprising how much effort goes into the recovery process," Noelle says. "I had to be consistent. Even if I just missed a week, I could see a difference."
After 13 weeks of physical therapy, Noelle transitioned into the Bridge Program, an integrated rehabilitative approach that combines traditional physical therapy with sports performance training. There, the team focused not just on Noelle's knee, but on stabilizing and strengthening her entire body to aid in recovery and prevent future injury.
"Noelle was an awesome patient," says Seagraves. "She came in every day ready to work and trusted the process from initial phase of rehab through the Bridge Program."
Noelle says that while she missed being with her classmates at practice and games, she found strength in the support of her newfound "teammates" – the team at Children's Health Andrews Institute.
"The therapists and trainers take the time to get to know you," she says. "They really care – and not just about your injury, but also about your mentality."
She also took comfort in having her dad conveniently nearby. "He would pop in while I was doing therapy sometimes," she laughs. "He'd look over and say, ‘You're doing good!' and was always there to support me."
Returning to the court with confidence
After 18 weeks, Noelle graduated from the Bridge Program, and moved on to the last phase of returning to play: sports performance training.
She works out with the EXOS sports performance specialists at Children's Health Andrews Institute three times per week, with a focus on building strength and increasing her own confidence.
Now, Noelle is looking forward to a new school year and a new chance to join her teammates on the court.
"I feel better and a lot stronger now," she says. "I'm looking forward to moving out of the recovery process and just playing a sport again. I hope I can perform as well as I did before, or even better."
Dr. Smurawa has always been passionate about taking a comprehensive approach to treating sports injuries. But now, he's lived it with his own child. Through it all, he encourages parents just to be there for their athletes.
"A sports injury can be life-changing for young athletes," he says. "Especially in the beginning, they may feel discouraged about having to be out for a length of time. It's a stepwise process, and it's important to encourage them, and as a parent, be their biggest support."
The only pediatric institute of its kind in Texas, the Children's Health Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine aims at reducing the number of children being sidelined from injury. Learn more about our wide range of services available to help athletes stay healthy and improve their game.