Weekend Warriors Welcome: Cutting-Edge ACL Repair Helps Ice Hockey Player Return to Her Favorite Pastime

November 14, 2019

Washington D.C. – When the leaves start to change color, there’s a good chance that you’ll find Nathalie Lawyer scoring goals on the ice hockey rink. The 28-year-old from Alexandria, VA never turned back after trading figure skating for pads and pucks back in 6th grade. Through work, school, and even marathon training, nothing could keep her off the ice – except for her ACL.

“I was playing hockey, and someone fell on me,” Lawyer said. “To be fair, I kind of pushed them onto me.”

She never heard the classic “pop” in her leg but knew something was wrong after physical therapy sessions couldn’t bring her back to normal. Later, a second injury at home made things much worse.

“I wasn’t doing anything crazy, but I was trying to reach something on the top shelf of my closet,” she said. “I’m relatively short so I was standing on a chair. I didn’t fall. I didn’t twist. As I was shifting weight to my non-injured leg and stepping off the floor, I did hear that ‘pop.’ It swelled up almost instantly.”

Lawyer’s primary care doctors now agreed that her ACL was torn, and it was time to consider surgery.

An Orthopedic Wizard

Luckily, finding a great orthopedic surgeon didn’t require a lot of leg work. Lawyer visited MedstarHealth.org and requested an appointment with Wiemi Douoguih, MD, at MedStar Health at Lafayette Centre. Two days later, she was sitting in his office.

“I happened upon Dr. Douoguih on the Internet,” Lawyer said. “I saw he had an opening, so I grabbed it without knowing much about him.”

It came as a huge surprise to later learn that Douoguih not only treats amateur athletes, but he is also the Head Team Physician for the Washington Wizards professional basketball team. MedStar Health serves as the Official Medical Provider of the Wizards.

“I felt really lucky and appreciative. I just rolled into his office not knowing how big of a deal he is,” Lawyer said. “I think it says a lot about MedStar Health. The physicians aren’t just filling up their time with high profile patients. It’s for normal people too.”

Not Beyond Repair

Dr. Douoguih determined that arthroscopic surgery could help Lawyer’s knee, and she received the idea well.

“I had just started grad school and I didn’t want to deal with the whole winter season and crutches on the Metro,” Lawyer said.

On top of that, her sister’s wedding was only two months away.

“That was the biggest concern of mine,” she said.

Lawyer wanted a procedure that would fix the ACL, speed up her return to hockey, and help ditch the crutches ASAP. She came to the right doctor. Douoguih recommended an ACL repair with internal brace augmentation, an innovative new procedure that he has helped pioneer in recent years.

“It’s stitching up the torn ligament, reattaching it and reinforcing it with a Kevlar-laced suture that acts like a seatbelt while the ligament heals,” Douoguih said. “For years we thought that reconstructing a ligament, or using a piece of tendon from somewhere else, worked better than repairing. The problem is that we may have been throwing the baby out with the proverbial bathwater. This whole concept turns on its head the idea that you can’t repair a ligament.”

Douoguih says that repairing the ligament, versus a traditional reconstruction, preserves the original neural fibers and minimizes the amount of time it takes athletes to re-establish the connection between their knee and their brain.

“It could take them anywhere from 18 to 24 months to recalibrate their map and define a new pattern of movement to go out and play sports. Some people can never do it. Anything we can do to preserve the normal anatomy is potentially beneficial,” Douoguih said.

Of Douoguih’s first 28 patients to undergo this repair, he says 86 percent have seen success after two years.

Back on Her Feet

At the time, Lawyer scheduled the ACL repair with Dr. Douoguih around the upcoming Memorial Day holiday. The relatively quick, outpatient procedure took place at the MedStar Ambulatory Surgery Center at Lafayette Centre in downtown Washington D.C.

“It was great,” Lawyer said. “I was surprised at how quickly I was able to do things again.”

After regaining full flexibility in her knee, that included finally putting down the crutches just weeks later as her sister tied the knot.

“I was able to walk down the aisle and dance at her wedding!” she said.

Later that summer, she traveled overseas and was able to enjoy long sight-seeing walks to different landmarks with minimal discomfort. Eventually, she started thinking about hockey again, and felt well enough to join some 3-on-3 pick-up games that fall. Now, three years later, she says her knee feels great as she gears up for another season on the ice.

“My originally injured knee actually feels better than my other knee,” Lawyer said. “It’s fantastic. I don’t feel like I have any limitations.”

A remarkable turnaround that took months instead of years, thanks to cutting-edge sports medicine available through MedStar Health.

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About MedStar Health

At MedStar Health, we use the best of our minds and the best of our hearts to serve our patients, those who care for them, and our communities. Our 30,000 associates and 4,700 affiliated physicians are committed to living this promise through our core SPIRIT values—Service, Patient first, Integrity, Respect, Innovation, and Teamwork—across our more than 300 locations including 10 hospitals, ambulatory, and urgent care centers. As the medical education and clinical partner of Georgetown University, MedStar Health is training future physician leaders to care for the whole person, and is advancing care through the MedStar Health Research Institute. From our telemedicine and urgent care services to the region’s largest home health agency, we’re committed to providing high-quality health care that’s also easy and convenient for our patients. At MedStar Health—It’s how we treat people. Learn more at MedStarHealth.org.

Media Contact

Marianne Worley
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Brendan McNamara
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