As an athlete, you take on a lot of physical risk. The question never is will I get hurt, but rather when. We see athletes at all levels get injured all the time, but not many of them open up about their physical and mental journey to being fully recovered. Let me share my experience…
In the spring of 2021, I was getting ready to play my first full season of professional golf. I was so excited to play and had been working hard with my coaches and trainers. Three weeks before my first event, I was walking up a hill from the green to my golf cart when all of a sudden my knee popped loudly and immediately began to swell. I was in a lot of pain and knew this was not normal. I put up with the pain, popping, and instability for a few days, as I optimistically thought it would all go away. Finally, my trainer encouraged me to seek medical attention, as I was struggling to even walk.
Upon receiving imaging, I was diagnosed with a cartilage defect due to a patella that sits too high on the knee as well as having various problematic tissues within my knee joint. The doctor’s recommendation was to do a cartilage transplant called a MACI procedure. I wouldn’t be able to play golf for a year, and the surgery and recovery would be very difficult.
I completely broke down into tears and had no words. How could this happen to me? I had already lost a year playing and practicing due to Covid protocols. The initial shock was indescribable.
Given the complexity of the injury and recommended procedure, I knew I needed to get multiple opinions from surgeons. The opinions I got were vastly different. After much research on doctors and my condition, I decided to see a very specialized surgeon (Dr. Andreas Gomoll) at Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) in NYC. HSS has been ranked #1 hospital in orthopedics for over 10 years.
During my first visit with Dr. Gomoll, I explained my situation and he studied my MRI and X-rays. He was so compassionate and rational. He said that my high patella combined with my activity level had caused my cartilage defect. Since Dr. Gomoll sees cases like this all the time, he commented that the MRI doesn’t always show the full story.
At that point, we both agreed to schedule my first surgery, so he could examine my defect, remove the problematic tissues, and take a cartilage biopsy in case we needed to perform the MACI procedure later. Plus, he mentioned that just having this type of procedure solved the knee issues of about 20% of his patients.
At the end of my appointment, I had mentioned to Dr. Gomoll that I had hoped to play Q School again that August. To give me a chance at playing, the surgery would have to be done soon. Unfortunately, the next available date was 3 weeks out. Dr. Gomoll immediately asked the scheduler to schedule me for the next week in whatever operating facility HSS had open. I was in shock he was so understanding of my situation and grateful for his sense of urgency.
The day came, and I was very nervous. Due to Covid, I wasn’t allowed to have anyone with me. I had never had surgery before and was not very fond of going under anesthesia. My family dropped me off, and I was taken to pre-op where I was hooked up to all kinds of monitors and IVs. People were coming in left and right asking me the same questions. What’s your name? Spell it. When’s your birthday? What procedure are you having? Which knee?
My time came, and I was rolled into the OR. It was kind of an out-of-body experience, as I had only seen the inside of an OR during episodes of Grey’s Anatomy. Luckily, the proforol and epidural worked quickly, and I was out.
After about an hour, I woke up in recovery. My family came to pick me up, and I was on my way home praying I was in the 20% of people that would be cured.
Two days post-op, I was in physical therapy. I had a found a great physical therapy team that helped me complete the necessary exercises. We all got along really well, and the therapists’ encouraging attitudes helped me through the whole process.
About two weeks into my recovery, the pain was back. Wanting to know more, I read the surgical report. Dr. Gomoll had found a 15x20 mm cartilage hole all the way to the bone under my patella. I knew this was bad news. Despite this, I kept going to PT, hoping it would all go away. At the same time, however, the uncertainty started to creep into my head; and it was very unsettling pondering what the future would hold.
At 6 weeks post-op, I had my follow-up visit. Upon walking into the room, Dr. Gomoll looked like he had bad news for me but didn’t want to have to tell me. He spent a lot of time going through the images from my surgery and explaining the situation. All I had to see was the image of my cartilage defect, and it was very clear I had no choice. We would have to move forward with the cartilage transplant MACI procedure.
Due to the severity of the defect, Dr. Gomoll also wanted to perform a tibial tubercle osteotomy (TTO) to correct my high patella. This procedure involved breaking my tibia, lowering my patella, and screwing it into place. A TTO involves power tools and screws, and I made the mistake of YouTubing the surgery. Not a good idea! Upon completing the procedure, my leg would be locked straight in a brace for 6 weeks. I wouldn’t be able to put weight on it and would be hooked up to machines 9 hours a day plus undergoing PT.
Because my cartilage biopsy had to grow in a lab for 6 weeks, I had a lot of time to think about what was ahead. This was very difficult mentally and caused me to be upset. The anxiety and anticipation kept building until I had a long talk with my mom and sports psychologist. They told me I have a great opportunity ahead of me. My knee would be brand new, and I would get a whole new start at playing golf pain free. Everyone on my support team was going to be there for me along the way. They were right.
I was fortunate to have a fix for my knee and a fantastic medical staff to help me get back to playing full time. The sadness eventually turned into motivation. I used the month I had left before the surgery to play as much golf as I could handle and continue to work hard in PT.
The early hours of the morning of my surgery came, and we were on our way to HSS. I sat quietly in the car keeping to my thoughts. As we got closer, I was even more nervous. I then thought to myself, I have the best surgeon and medical team and have to trust them to do what they do best.
I was admitted to the hospital and brought up to pre-op. There were plenty of people coming in and out of my room asking me the same questions once again. When I walked into the OR, I saw ALL the tools. It looked more like Home Depot than a hospital! With the proforol and epidural in my system, the procedure began.
When I woke up in recovery, I felt like I’d been hit by a truck. My pain meds had started to wear off, and I immediately needed another dose. My recovery nurse was very attentive and made sure I was comfortable. I lifted the covers and saw the big bandages with my brace on top. We were really in this now and there was no turning back.
The next 6 weeks were by far the worst 6 weeks of my life. I was on all kinds of medications and was still in a lot of pain. Between the cartilage transplant, cutting into my tibia, and my two titanium screws, my body was under intense stress. My knee had swelled so much, I struggled to bend it for my exercises or move from a seated position without intense throbbing. I didn’t sleep for 5 straight nights. Plus, the machines were no fun. I had lost my independence and couldn’t do anything without help. Eventually, we established a routine, and I felt like I was living the same day over and over again. Needless to say, this was all mentally and physically taxing.
I eventually got to the six-week post-op mark and was back in to see Dr. Gomoll. Things had drastically improved for me, and I was doing much better. I got the all clear to start putting weight on my leg. This was where the PT got really intense. I had lost so much leg strength and had to start from zero to get my strength back. The exercises were difficult and some days I struggled to get through them. However, I kept thinking to myself, this is all going to make you a better golfer. By keeping that attitude and listening to my PTs, I finally re-learned to walk with crutches and eventually without any assistance.
The 6-month post-op doctor’s appointment is crucial. This is when you have another MRI to determine if the cartilage graft took and is growing properly. Waiting and doing PT for six months not knowing if the graft is taking definitely causes some uneasiness.
About 5 months post-op, the popping started again. It wasn’t really painful, but it clearly wasn’t normal. My PTs assured me there couldn’t be anything seriously wrong, as I was making great progress. However, as the weeks went on, the pops got more frequent and painful. I started to worry and eventually the PTs were unsure what was happening, as well.
The day of my appointment, I had my MRI and Dr. Gomoll reviewed the images. The graft had grown so well that it was starting to invade my joint space. Plus, I had some scar tissue. We decided it was best to do a third surgery to trim the graft, remove the scar tissue, and take out my screws.
My third surgery date came, and it was the same routine as before. This time, it was so familiar that I wasn’t nervous at all. Dr. Gomoll and his PA came to see my in pre-op; and before they could ask me the same questions, I gave them all the answers they needed. There was a chuckle amongst everyone in the room, and we all decided we needed to stop meeting like this! I walked into the OR once again, which looked less like Home Depot, knowing how much this procedure was going to help me.
Over the next several weeks, I worked hard in PT to continue my recovery. At my 6 week post-op visit, I finally heard the words I’d been eagerly waiting to hear from Dr. Gomoll, “You can SLOWLY start hitting again”. My golf ban was finally over, and I’d made it to the start of my journey back to tournament golf. That day, I went to the range, hit my first shot, and cried tears of joy. I wasn’t in pain after hitting a shot for the first time in 13 months. It felt like an absolute miracle!
Since that day, I’m still working hard in PT. I can hit all my clubs and play 18 holes using a cart. I still have a long road ahead of me until I can play tournament golf involving 4-5 days of playing while walking. I’ve approached the game with a whole new perspective, as I’m grateful for each and every day I’m on the course.
I hope sharing my story has impacted you and your game in a positive way. Sometimes the difficulties life throws at you end up turning into something good. As difficult as having three surgeries was, the experience has changed me for the better. I can’t wait until I can finally tee it up full time in 2023!
Hit ‘em long and straight!
In her first competitive tournament after surgery, she finished 12th in the Women’s Met Open (2022). University of Tennessee Women’s Golf Team (2015-2019). T6 finish at Bobby Nicols Intercollegiate (2018). In junior golf Herring had 11 top five finishes, including a win at the 2014 AJGA UnderArmour/Scott Stallings Qualifier. She is currently preparing for Q-School.