Jan 29, 2015
Comeback Athlete: Jordan Bamberger

Wittenberg University

By Kyle Garratt

Kyle Garratt is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning. He can be reached at: [email protected].

Preseason is a time to work out the kinks in game strategy, get into shape for competition, and make final tweaks to starting lineups. It doesn’t usually make or break a player’s career. But for Wittenberg University goalkeeper Jordan Bamberger, a preseason soccer game in 2006 proved to be a defining moment in her life.

On that August day, in the final 10 minutes of an exhibition game, a freak accident damaged Bamberger’s left knee so severely that it surprised even her doctors. “What she suffered is a very rare injury,” says Peter Cha, MD, Attending Surgeon at Beacon Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine in Cincinnati. “All the structures that attach the outside of the knee were torn. We usually only see that type of damage after a traumatic event, like a car accident or a bad fall.”

For Bamberger, then a sophomore, the incident started out as a fairly routine play. With the ball loose near the goal, she went to the ground to secure possession, hoping to arrive a split second before an attacking player. But the two converged on the ball at the same time, and the opponent’s cleats crashed into her left knee, hyperextending it with a varus stress.

In an instant, that impact triggered excruciating pain and a long list of injuries. Bamberger suffered a torn posterior lateral capsule, torn popliteus muscle, torn lateral collateral ligament, biceps femoris avulsion off the fibular head, partial posterior collateral ligament (PCL) tear, patellofemoral chondromalacia, and medial plica syndrome.

“I had worked really hard that summer and felt like I was making saves I wouldn’t have made in my freshman year,” Bamberger recalls. “That made it all the more devastating–especially because the injury came during a scrimmage.”

Michaelyn Sebold, MA, LAT, ATC, Assistant Athletic Trainer at Wittenberg University, who oversaw Bamberger’s rehab, says she knew soon after the collision that the goalie had injured her PCL, but was confused when Bamberger said her entire leg hurt. “When I saw her go down, I actually thought she had broken something because she was in such severe pain,” Sebold says. “The next morning she came in and we knew there was something wrong, but we weren’t quite sure what it was.”

Bamberger had an MRI the following day and Timothy Kremcheck, MD, Wittenberg Team Physician and an Orthopedic Surgeon at Beacon Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine, identified the full extent of the injuries. Kremcheck, who is also team physician for the Cincinnati Reds, referred Bamberger to Cha, who performed a posterolateral corner reconstruction with a lateral meniscus repair. Cha drilled holes in Bamberger’s femur and fibula, and then ran a cadaver allograft made of a donor’s tibialis anterior muscle through the holes to reconstruct her popliteal fibular ligament. The surgery also featured a biceps tendon avulsion repair onto the fibula using two screws, and two arthroscopic procedures. Cha says he performs this operation five to 10 times a year, but very rarely on athletes.

“We reconstructed all the ligaments and structures on the outside of her knee,” Cha says. “We had to restore the knee to its natural anatomical position, and since it looked like a bomb had gone off on the side of her knee, that was a major challenge.”

The restrictive nature of the injury meant Bamberger was in for a long, tedious, and painful rehab. “I’ve never seen anything like this injury,” says Sebold. “Our head athletic trainer had never seen anything like it either. So we went strictly by Dr. Cha’s directions for the entire rehab because we didn’t want to do anything to mess up the grafting. We went to the doctors for follow-ups and I would ask them questions I never thought I would have to ask, like whether Jordan could do a straight-leg raise in a different direction.”

The need to clear even simple exercises with her doctor was one of many restrictions during Bamberger’s rehab. She wore a brace and wasn’t allowed to perform active flexion for the first six weeks following surgery. She was also locked into full extension for the first four weeks, and had to avoid open-chain exercises for 12 weeks. During the first month post-surgery, she could only perform basic strengthening and contraction of the quadriceps and stretching of the calf. She was able to do some light upper-body lifting, and rode an upper-body bike while the knee was locked in extension. After four weeks, Bamberger’s knee extensions advanced from 60 to 75 degrees.

“The whole point of this rehab process is that it’s very restrictive until all the muscles and tendons heal,” Cha says. “If we were too aggressive too soon, we could have torn or re-injured the repaired tissue. We had to constantly monitor the injury, and we were constantly tweaking her rehab depending on how her knee looked. There was no set recipe–everything was based on how she was responding.”

And then there was the bending. To regain range of motion, Sebold had to physically hold Bamberger’s thigh down, or have a student assistant do it, while bending her knee manually. Sebold bent Bamberger’s knee five times per session as Bamberger sat on the athletic training table, and says it still haunts her two years later. Ellen Crosbie, MEd, LAT, ATC, Head Athletic Trainer at Wittenberg, couldn’t even bear to be in the athletic training room while Sebold bent Bamberger’s knee.

“Usually, if I bend an ACL patient’s knee five times, it takes maybe five or 10 minutes,” Sebold says. “It’s painful for them, but the range of motion gets better every time. For Jordan, it was so painful that it would take up to two hours to complete five knee bends. We had to hold her down, and she would cry or bite a towel. We also had to lock her out again at zero degrees in her brace after we were done. So she started from scratch each time.”

It was a process that would make someone with an ordinary ACL tear feel lucky. “It felt like my knee was going to explode every time they bent it,” Bamberger says. “It seemed like my knee couldn’t bend any farther, and then they kept going. The pain was so nauseating they had to put a trash can next to me in case I got sick.”

Bamberger never needed the trash can, and she continued to show up five or six days a week for painful, repetitive movements and exercises. After about three months, she was able to begin bending the knee on her own. During this time, she watched a teammate who had torn an ACL several months after her own injury get off crutches and out of a brace before her. But she didn’t complain, and her perseverance in the face of a daunting rehab impressed those around her.

“Jordan came back every day and, I hate to say, kind of got tortured,” Sebold says. “There were times when we wondered how she kept coming back, because it was painful to even watch her. But something inside her wanted to fight through it and keep going.”

Six months post-surgery, Bamberger was cleared to run after her left quadriceps regained 80 percent of its pre-injury strength. “I was so excited and I remember thinking, ‘I can’t wait to run. I’m going to run every day,'” Bamberger says. “The first time I got on the treadmill, I ran for 10 minutes and was absolutely spent. I needed to accept that it would take a long time to get back into shape.”

She started running, lifting, and performing basic soccer exercises the summer after her sophomore year, about nine months after the surgery. By the start of her junior season, the position waiting for her was backup to All-American goalkeeper Meghan O’Rourke.

“Jordan understood her role,” Sebold says. “It wasn’t always easy, but she understood it. Meghan was very good with Jordan in terms of encouraging her and saying, ‘This is your place, too, and I need you here every day with me.’ During Jordan’s rehab, Meghan would come in and hold her down while we bent her knee, wipe her tears, and talk her through it.”

During the 2007 season, Bamberger worked her way back into shape and patiently watched from the bench as she got used to her new knee brace. She appeared in four games that season as Wittenberg advanced to the round of 16 in the NCAA Division III tournament for the first time in school history.

When the Tigers took the field for the 2008 season as the 15th ranked team in the country, O’Rourke had graduated and Bamberger was the starting goalkeeper. Earning the respect of her teammates, she was also voted a team captain.

When Bamberger reflects on her journey back to the pitch, she recalls a moment of solitude that convinced her all the hard work was worthwhile. She was in the athletic training room before a game during the 2006 season and Sebold was trying unsuccessfully to get her through a set of manual knee bends. “I couldn’t relax and I couldn’t get any good bends in,” Bamberger says. “I was crying and extremely frustrated. I had to walk down to the game by myself, and I looked across the field and thought, ‘This is obviously something I want to be part of. So even though it’s really hard, I’m just going to have to find a way to get through it.'”

Sebold knows that keeping composure around Bamberger was a key to the rehab’s success. “With this level of injury, it’s important to appear confident in what you’re doing, even if you have to fake it a little,” Sebold says. “You can’t let the athlete see any doubt, because they will lose confidence in themselves, and that can be devastating. I let Jordan feed off my confidence.”

Sebold was able to develop a special bond with Bamberger because they were both goaltenders–Sebold played on her high school team and club teams in the U.S. and England. “It helped her trust me and helped me relate to her,” Sebold says. “I think she appreciated that I knew where she was coming from. If she didn’t trust me and she didn’t feel the confidence that I had, she wouldn’t have gotten through it.”

Wittenberg finished the 2008 regular season 10-3-5 and went on to win the North Coast Athletic Conference tournament, with Bamberger allowing no goals in 219 minutes of play. Neither she nor Sebold worry about re-injury, and Bamberger is full of perspective and gratitude. “The athletic trainers pushed me out of my comfort zone, but at the same time, made me feel comfortable,” she says. “They became almost like a second family because I knew all their work was geared toward getting me better. Their selflessness was what helped me get where I am now, and that’s amazing.

“I know that not everyone recovers from the type of injury I had, so I feel very fortunate and blessed to have this opportunity,” she contines. “I remind myself of that whenever I hit the little frustrations of the season.”

Sebold says she frequently talks about Bamberger’s injury and rehab with other athletic trainers. The process bolstered her confidence and gave her an easy answer when students ask her about the worst injury she has ever seen. “Jordan had by far the worst injury, but she’s also the greatest success story I’ve had,” Sebold says. “It’s always special when an athlete gets to return to their sport. She knows that I beam with pride watching her practice and seeing her back on the field, because it very easily could have turned out differently.”

To nominate a Comeback Athlete, send an e-mail to:[email protected].


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