Returning to an active lifestyle after hamstring tear

As a regular Jazzerciser for more than 20 years, Fran Steffen truly appreciates the ability to be active after she was sidelined by a severe hamstring injury last year.

The day of Steffen’s hamstring tear

The injury happened Sept. 5, 2017 – a day she remembers clearly. Steffen, 57, felt properly warmed up after a Jazzercise class when she decided to play tennis with a friend. The honey locust trees already had started shedding their tiny leaves on the court.

She and her friend cleared the leaf clumps from the court the best they could and started to play. As Steffen lined up for a backhanded shot, her left heel slipped on a leaf.

“My leg hyperextended out in front of me, and I felt my body sliding. My leg went up above my head, and down I crashed,” she recalled. “It hurt like the dickens.”

Steffen knew the injury was bad – she collapsed when she tried to step on her left leg. Her friend helped her limp to her vehicle for a trip to the emergency room. “Getting into the Jeep was horrible,” she said.

Initially, Steffen thought maybe she had broken a bone or dislocated her hip. An X-ray and a CAT scan at the hospital didn’t provide any answers. So, she was referred to an orthopedist for an MRI, which showed a complete tear of her hamstring tendons at the hip.

She sought out a few opinions on who should do the surgery needed to repair her injury. That search led her to OrthoIllinois’ Dr. Geoffrey Van Thiel, who specializes in minimally invasive and arthroscopic surgery of the hip, knee and shoulder. Another physician discussed a wait-and-see option with her but said delaying surgery would mean she’d likely always walk with a limp and have trouble navigating stairs.

“I Jazzercise four times a week, and I walk every day. I can’t not be active, and I want to stay active for as many years as I can,” she said. “After talking to Dr. Van Thiel, I pushed the go button (on surgery).”

Surgery to repair Steffen’s hamstring tear

Dr. Van Thiel performed the surgery on Sept. 21 at OrthoIllinois’ surgery center in Rockford. Steffen lives in Tower Lakes, about five minutes from downtown Barrington, and said she didn’t mind the 90-minute drive to Rockford. She appreciated the convenience of having the outpatient procedure done at the center. “People were so polite, and it was so much simpler” than having surgery at a hospital.

In working with Steffen, Dr. Van Thiel recalled “she had high goals after surgery of returning to activity.”

“Given the need for a strong repair that would not limit her in the future, we had to mobilize the tendon and used cutting-edge fixation of the tendon back to the bone,” he explained. “This fixation is nearly as strong as the original tendon, and once the body heals itself, she will be back to doing anything in life she wants.”

Recovering from hamstring tear surgery

After surgery, Steffen had to keep her weight off her left leg, which she did through a combination of wearing a leg brace and using crutches. She was able to “roll right into bed” on a sleeper sofa near the front door of the house and access a nearby bathroom with a stand-up shower. The day she returned home, she recalled the three steps leading up to the house “feeling like Mount Everest.”

Taking time to prepare the home for life post-surgery proved useful. Steffen ordered an elevated seat for the toilet and had a stool available for the shower. She credited her husband, Rick, for being a great support during her recovery.

She started physical therapy shortly after the surgery. Therapy focused on stretching to improve flexibility and range of motion, as well as strengthening the hamstring muscles.

Steffen healed quickly, in part because she was already an active person and because she closely followed recovery recommendations. She was off crutches after about five weeks. “(Dr. Van Thiel) called me a rock star, which further endeared him to me,” she said.

“My job is to repair a rip/tear/break with the strongest and best options available,” Dr. Van Thiel said. “This allows patients to mobilize early and speeds up their recovery. The patient’s job is to actively engage in recovery and return to activity. This motivation helps aid healing from the surgery. Fran was and is a fantastic patient that really drove her own speedy recovery.”

Steffen returned to Jazzercise before the end of December. During the first two months of this year, she already had taken more than 30 classes. She also frequently walks her dog and recently visited a driving range.

Though she remains active, Steffen said she likely won’t return to the tennis court anytime soon. She herniated a disc in her back playing tennis in 2015 and said Rick has since “threatened to throw her racquet in the lake.”

Ultimately, she said, she’s happy just for the ability to return to her active lifestyle.

“I highly respect Dr. Van Thiel – he was the right person for the surgery,” she said. “As we were driving to Rockford (on the day of surgery), we had a long time to think about things. Rick said, ‘God brought us to Dr. Van Thiel for a reason, so you’re going to be OK.’ He had the right personality for both of us and he answered all our questions. I had no qualms about him being very qualified for the job. He gave me my life back.”


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