On Memorial Day 2020, Hastings, Michigan, resident Julie Richardson headed out for a pontoon ride with her family to mark the unofficial start of the summer season.
Sarge, the family’s 100-pound German shepherd puppy, wanted to go along for the ride.
As Julie went to step onto their pontoon boat at the dock near the home, Sarge did the same.
“He likes to be first on everything and he side-swiped me and pushed me off the pontoon,” she said.
She remembers falling into the shallow water in almost slow motion.
“I land, but then do a full squat and watch this knee explode,” Julie said. “And I knew something wasn’t good.”
Her husband Marc, still near their house, didn’t see the incident.
Julie, a physical therapist, hoped she had only dislocated her right knee, but in trying to push and pull it, she knew she suffered a serious injury.
Her left leg hurt, too. She couldn’t stand. She wouldn’t be able to navigate the stairs back to the house.
And she didn’t know how she would get help.
A short pontoon ride
Marc soon arrived and helped Julie stand and pivot on her left leg, so she could get herself out of the water and onto the dock.
After butt-scooting onto the boat, she would get that pontoon ride after all—to the public access boat launch to meet an ambulance.
Marc called 911.
In pain, wet and covered with algae, Julie readied for the ambulance ride.
It took her to the Spectrum Health Pennock Hospital emergency department, where the health team quickly performed X-rays and CT scans on both legs.
It didn’t look good. The fall had shattered her right knee.
An ambulance then took her to the Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital emergency department, where she learned her left knee also had a fracture.
“The orthopedic emergency room doc came in and said, ‘Did they tell you that you have a fracture in the left one, too?’” she said. “I’m like, ‘No wonder it hurts.’”
She readied for surgery.
Medardo Maroto, MD, surgically installed an external fixation device with pins in her leg bones. This included a bar that enabled her to lift her leg with her hand, while stabilizing the fracture prior to reconstructive surgery.
Other work followed.
On June 16, Dr. Maroto used three plates and nine screws to put Julie’s right knee back together. Her left knee would heal on its own, but Julie could not put weight on either leg for 12 weeks.
There went the summer.
Neighbors made her a ramp from old dock sections so she could get into her home with her wheelchair.
Her upstairs bedroom and bathroom were now off limits.
A hospital bed, commode, slide board and trapeze were set up in the main floor of their home so she could move between two rooms—her kitchen and what she called her “hospital bedroom.”
“I was pretty much helpless all summer,” she said. “I couldn’t take a shower. I had to sponge bathe. I couldn’t get in the car. I couldn’t go anywhere.”
As summer dragged on, Julie grew depressed.
Visits from coworkers every Wednesday bolstered her spirits. They would deliver food and smiles.
“My coworkers were amazing, just amazing support,” she said.
In July, she suddenly got a rehab buddy.
Marc and Julie’s middle son, Kai, 15, injured his knee July 14 in a freak accident.
He would require knee surgery of his own.
Riding home at dusk on a bicycle after hanging out with friends on the water, Kai reached to put his phone in his back pocket and his right foot slipped off the pedal. He put the foot down on the pavement to brace himself and the pedal came around and hit the outside of his knee.
“I felt a pop and immediate pain,” Kai said. “Luckily, some family friends were there and they dragged me out of the road.”
It happened not far from home.
His friend’s mother ran to get Marc to come pick him up.
At first, they weren’t sure about the extent of Kai’s injuries. But after a couple of days with Kai still complaining of pain, Marc took him to Spectrum Health Orthopedic Urgent Care in Grand Rapids.
An MRI showed Kai had torn his anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL, and strained the medial collateral ligament, or MCL, in his right knee.
Doctors put his leg in a brace and gave him crutches as he awaited knee surgery.
Caregiver becomes cared-for
James Lebolt, MD, repaired Kai’s knee with surgery on July 28.
After surgery, Kai started outpatient therapy right away.
Mom helped with his home exercise program from her wheelchair and hospital bed at home.
Julie started outpatient therapy in September, after she could finally put weight on her legs with help from a walker.
Both Julie and Kai would rehab their knees at Pennock Hospital in the outpatient rehabilitation program, where Julie works as a physical therapist.
Julie the therapist became Julie the patient.
Her co-worker, physical therapy assistant Karen Hammond, guided her treatment.
“It gives you a whole different perspective,” Julie said. “She pushed me. She was tough.”
But Julie knew it was for her own good.
“I knew I wouldn’t do it myself, because I hurt,” Julie said. “I was in pain, and when you’re in pain, you don’t want to move.”
Julie would go to therapy three times a week for a couple of months.
“She was good, very cooperative,” Hammond said. “She wanted to get better. She was anxious to get back to work. Anything we tried to get her to do, she tried.”
Hammond worked with Julie to regain the strength in her legs.
“She hadn’t used her legs for 12 weeks,” Hammond said. “It’s like retraining somebody how to walk.”
Back on her feet
After being off six long months, Julie resumed work in December, starting part time.
“I didn’t know if I would make it back to work,” she said. “I didn’t know if I could handle it—physically. I was scared.”
Her regular patients were happy to see her.
“Being in a rural community, you get frequent flyer patients,” she said. “And they were all rooting for me, happy to see me back—so it was good to be back.”
Kai, meanwhile, worked to tackle his 30 rehab visits.
The Hastings High School freshman got no slack from mom’s coworkers.
“They all know me, so they expect everything from me,” he said. “They push me—all for my benefit.”
He worked with physical therapy assistant Roseann Doney.
“Kai worked hard to improve his range of motion and then to get his strength back,” Doney said.
He finished his rehab in December and he’s continuing in a sports metric program three times a week.
He’s the first patient at Pennock Hospital to use the program, which is specifically designed to get athletes back in the game safely.
“The sports metrics program allows us a more scientific approach to return to sports with a more reliable indicator that the athlete and knee are ready,” Dr. Lebolt said. “We not only worry about the operative knee, but the good knee is 30% more likely to sustain a similar injury.”
The skilled rehab team helps combat those problems.
Dr. Lebolt previously trained and worked with high-level college and professional athletes. He’s now applying many of those rehab principles and techniques by partnering with area physical therapists.
Back in the game
Kai is motivated, with hopes of returning to sports soon.
“He’s worked really hard,” Doney said. “He wants to get back into playing sports. He did everything we asked him to do—not always without complaint—but he put everything he had into the rehab.”
That indomitable spirit is guiding him through the sports metrics program.
Kai competes in football, basketball and track and field. He felt disappointed to miss a year of competition, but if he had to miss a year, the year of COVID-19 was a good one to miss.
“It kind of stunk to stand on the sidelines for football,” he said.
The 6-foot-3, 190-pound athlete is eagerly awaiting the green light to play sports again.
“He’s come a long way from when he was first learning to walk without a limp to doing these agility ladder drills,” Doney said.
Dr. Lebolt has been impressed with Kai’s progress.
“He has had a very remarkable recovery and is tougher than the average bear,” he said.
Kai and Julie are looking forward to the simple pleasures of summer and relaxing with friends at the lake.
Julie is ready to get back in the boat.
“You can’t imagine,” she said.