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From Sidelines to State Championships: A High School Athlete’s ACL Recovery Story

Sports have always been a big part of Caitlin Tully’s life. The 18-year-old from New Canaan, CT began playing lacrosse in first grade and ice hockey in middle school.

“I love being part of a team. Being able to go out on the field or ice allows me to free my mind from whatever may be going on that day,” said Caitlin.

In the winter of her sophomore year at New Canaan High School, Caitlin was playing in a fall ball lacrosse tournament when she pivoted for a ground ball and heard a pop in her right knee.

Having previously been to ONS for other orthopedic issues, Dr. Paul Sethi, sports medicine surgeon at ONS, was already her go-to specialist.

It turned out that Caitlin tore her ACL, MCL and meniscus. As surgery was the best option, Dr. Sethi operated on Caitlin at the Stamford ASC in December 2019. The surgery was successful; Catlin had no complications and made great progress in her recovery with the help of physical therapy.

“At first, it was definitely tough getting used to being on the sidelines and watching all my teammates as I’m being kept away from doing something that I love,” explained Caitlin, who rehabbed the spring of her sophomore year and fall of junior year, which coincidentally coincided with the start of the COVID pandemic.

She was thrilled to get back to ice hockey during the winter season of her junior year, where she excelled. After hockey season, while getting ready for a big lacrosse game, she felt the same pop – this time in her left leg.

While disappointed, Caitlin went back to Dr. Sethi’s office who diagnosed her with an ACL and meniscus tear in her other knee. Two weeks later, she underwent surgery again in May 2021.

“The hardest part was mentally – I knew what I had ahead of me. When I was lying on the turf after the second tear, I felt like I was at rock bottom,” recalled Caitlin.

Dr. Sethi put her on an aggressive return-to-play regimen, and she started weight bearing as fast as possible.

“ONS really understands that a student athlete’s goal is just to be back on the field,” Caitlin explained. “Dr. Sethi has done everything in his power to make sure I’m in my best shape and that I’m the best athlete I can be.”

This time, the initial post-operative days felt a little more difficult for Caitlin. “While in the beginning I felt like I wasn’t making any progress, I then shifted my mindset as I realized I had to start pushing to get past the mental part and simply put in the hard work to get back on the field,” she said.

In both knees, Dr. Sethi opted to perform an AnteroLateral Ligament (ALL) reconstruction in addition to ACL reconstruction, which involves adding a hamstring tendon between the tibia and the femur where the native ALL is.  The latest research suggests that young female athletes are at very high risk for re-injury after ACL surgery and by adding the ALL, Dr. Sethi and the sports team at ONS believe they can improve the outcomes and reduce the risk of re-tearing in high-risk athletes.

“Knowing that I was going back with an extra measure of support and stability made me feel comfortable,” said Caitlin who noticed she was getting stronger after the second surgery.

She healed in time to play her senior ice hockey season where she led her team to win both FCIAC and CHSGHA state championships, three years after the last state final in 2019, which they also won.

After hockey season, she developed tendonitis (patellofemoral pain) at the beginning of her senior lacrosse season which was frustrating yet “Dr. Sethi assured me it was common for ACL rehab and recommended quad strengthening which helped,” said Caitlin who re-joined her team in April.

Her winning streak didn’t end with the hockey season – her lacrosse team also won both FCIAC and state championships and was unanimously voted number one in the Final 2022 Top 10 Girls Lacrosse Coaches Poll. Then she went on to lead the team to the high school national championship. This was a first in program history.

“In the moment, injuries can feel like the end of the world, but it’s so important to take a step back and look at the grand scheme of things when something like this happens to a young athlete,” said Caitlin. “These experiences made me physically strong and mentally tough. I know my body better than I ever did before and can take care of it even better.”

Caitlin has just started her freshman year at Cornell where, despite her injuries, she was recruited to play Division I lacrosse.

“It’s not the injury that defines you but how you come back from it.”