Making a Comeback after Catastrophic Knee Injury

Written Mayo Clinic Staff on October 5, 2021

December 17, 2021

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After a gruesome knee injury, McKenzie Milton faced not only an uncertain future in football but a question as to whether he’d walk again without pain. His return to the field this fall surprised even his Mayo Clinic surgeon.

McKenzie Milton knows about teamwork. Milton, a quarterback for the Florida State Seminoles, has been leading teams to victory since his days as a quarterback at Mililani High School in Hawaii. As a sophomore at the University of Central Florida, he was named American Athletic Conference offensive player of the year and was on the shortlist for the Heisman trophy.

Then, during his junior year, Milton had a devastating injury that led him to become part of a team he’d hoped never to join: a medical team led by orthopedic surgeon Bruce Levy, M.D., dedicated to sparing his leg. But that team would do even more. They’d help get Milton back in the game.

In November 2018, Milton “suffered a knee dislocation where the thigh bone and the lower leg bone were completely dislocated,” the Orlando Sentinel reports. The injury also involved torn ligaments and tendons, and damage to the main artery feeding blood to Milton’s leg. The injury was “so gruesome that you don’t want to watch it,” according to Yahoo! Sports. “And the reality turned out to be worse than the video, as there was talk of amputation in the immediate aftermath.”

Milton came to Mayo Clinic six weeks after the injury. Before Milton arrived, Dr. Levy had “gone through all of the college and NFL databases on prior players that had dislocated their knee” and found “one or two that were able to get back to playing, but none with this specific ligament, vascular and nerve injury.” He told Milton his goals for surgery were to save his leg and allow him to walk without pain.

What about football, Milton wondered? Dr. Levy explained his chances of playing again this way: “Imagine you’re a rookie and it’s your first at-bat in the major leagues. The bases are loaded and you hit a grand slam home run. Then you do it three more times in the same game.”

To Milton, that wasn’t discouraging. It meant he had a chance at getting back to the game he loved.

The first step in achieving that goal was getting through “a series of grueling surgeries to reconstruct his knee,” according to the Sentinel. Those surgeries involved a team of teams: orthopedic surgeons, vascular surgeons, neurosurgeons, and a radiology team to keep an eye on Milton’s artery and make sure he wasn’t developing blood clots.

After surgery, Milton began a painstaking rehabilitation process that would lead to success beyond what Dr. Levy thought possible. “I could not believe my eyes,” he told the Sentinel of a video he received of Milton running. “Every step along the way, he has defied the odds.”

And on Sept. 5, Milton did what Dr. Levy and many others once thought impossible: he got back on the football field. When the starting quarterback’s helmet was knocked off during a play near the end of the game, Milton got the nod to head onto the field. The Seminoles were down 10 points. In just over nine minutes of game time, Milton led his team to a 10-point comeback. While the Seminoles would go on to lose to Notre Dame in overtime, it felt like a win to Milton and the 70-plus friends and family on hand to see his comeback — including Dr. Levy.

“There are some things we can’t always understand and can’t always explain,” Dr. Levy tells the Tampa Bay Times. “But he certainly defies all odds — just his pure will and drive and belief in himself that he can do it. I’ve never met any patient like that.”

Dr. Levy was among a small group of family and friends who stuck around to greet Milton after the game, according to ESPN. During the brief reunion, the quarterback told the surgeon, “This is your work out there, doc!”

“It was emotional, surreal. I keep thinking, ‘Did this actually happen?'” Dr. Levy told ESPN.

Originally posted on In the Loop.

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