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Injuries Are Derailing More Young Athletes. This Philly Doctor Uses an Innovative Implant to Get Them Back on the Field

Every year counts for a young athlete. When you’re growing and developing rapidly, whether chasing school records and pursuing an athletics scholarship in hopes of someday becoming the next hometown hero, or simply trying to get back out on the field to play with your friends, you don’t want to let an injury derail your entire career.

Unfortunately, injuries in student athletes are on the rise. In particular, ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) tears–an injury that can require more than nine months of recovery–are increasing as more students participate in sports at younger ages.

That increase has presented physicians with a challenge. They need to find a way to help young athletes recover better in the short-term so they don’t miss out on a critical period. But at the same time, physicians need to ensure their solution supports, rather than impairs, students’ developing bodies in the long-term.

In Philadelphia, that challenge has an answer. Dr. Sean R. Waldron at Shriners Children’s Philadelphia has brought a new surgery to the region–the Bridge Enhanced ACL Restoration (BEAR) Implant–which marks a major step forward in ACL repair, allowing the ligament to heal in its natural position for the first time.

“I think this will eventually be the standard of care for acute ACL tears in children,” Waldron says.

The surgery could not only make recovery smoother for the patient, but may hold benefits down the road for young athletes, the implications of which are still being observed. And with several surgeries already performed, Waldron’s work in the region could make him the go-to for preventing an athlete’s hopes and dreams from being sidelined.

A Major Life Hurdle

Local high school senior Richard Turayev knows the importance of getting the right treatment. When he was a sophomore, he had a promising swimming career–he had naturally loved swimming since he was a small child, and once he began to compete, he quickly found himself on the way to being at the top of his school, with college scouts already calling.

But a sudden injury during an informal pick-up basketball game caused his leg to go numb, then become incredibly painful during swim practice. He tried to play through it, but eventually sought help.

“When I tried running or swimming, that’s when the pain really kicked in, and I wasn’t able to do anything,” he says.

The bad news: It was an ACL tear. And while successful surgeries are routinely performed to accommodate ACL tears, there’s no common way to repair the ACL itself.

But after the initial scan, Turayev sought out Waldron, who introduced him to the BEAR Implant.

A Difficult Road Ahead

To understand the significance of the BEAR Implant, you need to understand the challenge that surgeons are up against.

Because children are still growing, physicians need to avoid damaging the growth plates around the knee that expand as children get older, or risk harming their overall growth. This limits the amount of work the surgeon can do on the ACL. On top of that, the fluid inside the joint surrounding the ACL prevents blood clot formation — meaning that even if the ACL is stitched back together, the repair might not last.

The solution, traditionally, has been to perform an ACL reconstruction–taking a tendon from another part of the body, and either rerouting it so that it serves the function of the ACL, or removing it from its current position and moving it into the joint.

But this comes with clear risks. You’ve taken a tendon and used it for another purpose than its original intention, and while the replacement functions well in the short term, studies show that, if the athlete is reinjured and requires another reconstruction, the results are not as successful.

“You’re taking a tendon, and you’re putting it in or you’re changing where it goes, so that their knee doesn’t really function the same way it did before,” Waldron says. “Because you took away something that should have been there.”

That’s why Dr. Waldron wanted to introduce the BEAR Implant to Philadelphia.

A Big Step Forward

The BEAR Implant is the first method that allows the ACL to heal itself naturally in place. Originally developed by a physician with a background in pediatrics, the BEAR Implant is well suited for children, who heal quickly but require careful navigation to get to the ACL.

The Implant is made of collagen, and works by providing protective cover for the damaged ACL. Waldron goes into the knee through tiny holes to avoid harming the patient, repairs the ACL, then places the implant over the repaired tendon to allow it to heal. The collagen is then reabsorbed into the body in a few months, after the ACL is back to normal.

“The result is that you’re helping the ligament to heal back in an anatomic position,” Waldron says. “It’s where it’s supposed to be because you didn’t take it away–you repaired it.”

Waldron had been trained in the procedure, and was looking for the right candidate to perform it on. Then he met Turayev.

“[Waldron] said there’s a new thing called a BEAR Implant,” Turayev says. “He explained to us the benefits detail by detail.”

Within a few weeks, Turayev had undergone the first successful BEAR Implant procedure in the region. He woke up with a stuffed Teddy Bear on his hospital bed.

The Road Back

Turayev had a particularly positive healing experience.

“My leg only hurt for one day afterward,” Turayev says. Within a few months, he began weight-lifting again, followed by a return to swim practice. That’s an impressively quick recovery, but’s in keeping with the data on the BEAR Implant.

“What we found is that the patient-reported outcomes show that the BEAR patients seem to get better faster than the reconstruction patients,” Waldron says. “They tend to feel like they’re recovering better, and there’s also some objective data that their range of motion is better sooner, and their strength is better sooner.”

In addition to the effectiveness of the surgery, his healing can also be attributed to the recovery program Waldron works with at Shriners Children’s. In addition to traditional physical therapy, the hospital has a motion analysis lab on-site, which records the minute-by-minute movements of the patient during their exercises, so they can make fine-grained adjustments to their recovery and determine if they’re ready to return to playing sports.

“By the end, you know 100-percent that they are ready to get back out there,” Waldron says.

The result is that Turayev has made a full recovery. His leg functions just as it did before. And, even though he has some catch-up to do for the lost season, as a rising senior, he’s back in communication with scouts, pursuing his dream of going to college and becoming a veterinarian.

“By the end of the summer, I’ll be one-hundred percent back to where I was as an athlete,” Turayev says. “My goal is to go to the college that I want to go to.”