Naperville athlete defies odds with recovery from a “triple-whammy” knee injury

January 17, 2023 | by Edward-Elmhurst Health
Categories: Healthy Driven Heroes

Bella Mendoza, 17, of Naperville, has been playing sports throughout her life. When she’s not excelling in the classroom or following her passion for art, she is often playing basketball or volleyball, or running in track and field.

When Mendoza entered high school, she looked forward to her first track and field season, but life had other plans. Both her freshman and sophomore seasons were either cancelled or cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Her junior season didn’t start off any easier.

In February 2022, Mendoza was at track and field practice early on a Saturday morning. She remembers finishing her warm-ups and splitting into groups with her teammates.

“We took out a hurdle so we could practice our form to improve our long jump. I remember running up to a hurdle, hesitating and abruptly stopping. I suddenly felt a weird sensation in my left knee,” she says.

“I thought it was a tweak in my knee and I tried to walk it off. When my coach ran over to check on me, I knew it was something more,” she adds.

Mendoza’s parents, Alex and Darah, immediately took her to the Plainfield Emergency Center to have her knee examined.

She was referred to Sincer Jacob, PA-C, MMS, an advanced practice clinician with expertise in orthopedic surgery and sports medicine, who recommended a same-day MRI. Jacob then referred Mendoza to Zahab Ahsan, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist.

The two clinicians, from Edward-Elmhurst Medical Group-Orthopedics, work collaboratively to provide patients with comprehensive care.

Dr. Ahsan was concerned Mendoza may have had a serious knee ligament injury.

“I was in pain, but I was more upset that my track season was over. It was supposed to be my first full season,” Mendoza says.

A diagnosis and treatment approach

Mendoza’s knee injury was worse than imagined — she tore her meniscus, stretched and compromised her medial patellofemoral ligament (known as MPFL) and dislocated her knee cap.

“It wasn’t her ACL [anterior cruciate ligament], but it was everything else,” her mother says.

When Dr. Ahsan reviewed Mendoza’s MRI with the family, they discussed the role of surgery for ligament reconstruction, but first they needed to start with physical therapy to reduce the swelling and help her regain strength.

“We were aiming for the goal of getting my knee healthier to prepare for surgery,” Mendoza says. “I’ve never been injured or had surgery before, so I was nervous about the outcome.”

Strengthening her knee for surgery

As part of her comprehensive care plan, Dr. Ahsan recommended Mendoza’s therapy be tailored to her interests in sports. Under his direction, Mendoza committed to a rigorous physical therapy schedule to improve her mobility that started with hour-long sessions three times a week.

“It was intense. She would contend with using crutches in the winter, attend physical therapy after school and then have an evening of homework. She often wouldn’t go to bed until midnight, then be up early to start the day all over again,” Mendoza’s parents said.

The family set their daughter’s spring break in March as the target date for her surgery. A week before, Dr. Ahsan recommended they give her knee more time to heal on its own. Mendoza’s knee continued to get stronger.

Prom was around the corner. Mendoza made it her goal to walk around school with a smaller knee brace so she wouldn’t need to be restricted in her evening gown. Mendoza achieved her goal.

Surprising news

In May, Dr. Ahsan re-evaluated the stability of Mendoza’s knee and discussed her progress with her physical therapist. He concluded that due to her hard work and capacity to heal, she no longer needed surgery. Mendoza and her parents were in disbelief.

“Imagine working towards a goal of surgery where you are constantly pumping yourself up. When news came during that one office visit, we were surprised, but it turned out to be the best decision,” her mother says.

Mendoza says she never processed what surgery would be like.

“I didn’t want to have surgery. I also didn’t want to let myself or anyone else down,” she adds.

In seven short months, she began running on a zero-gravity treadmill and resumed many of her normal activities. This past summer, the Mendoza family even took a vacation to Disney World where she walked 10 miles in one day.

“Dr. Ahsan believed in her all along. He knew she could recover on her own,” her mother says. “It just goes to show that surgery is not the only option.”

Her parents also credit Mendoza’s physical therapy team: “They were instrumental to Bella's full recovery, both physically and mentally. They were a cheering squad to Bella.”

Preparing for track season

To prepare for her first full track and field season, Mendoza is focusing on strength training. She is proud of how far she has come since her injury.

“Even though it was hard in the beginning. My body was able to heal itself. I’ve learned I’m a lot stronger than I thought I was both physically and mentally,” she says.

Mendoza’s mom feels like the family has come full circle from where they began. “It’s going to be a big day when she finally hits the track, and we will all be there to cheer her on,” she says.

The orthopedic team of experts at Edward-Elmhurst Medical Group-Orthopedics provides exceptional orthopedic, sports medicine and podiatry services for patients of all ages. We use the least invasive treatments necessary to help you get back to the activities you enjoy, as quickly as possible. Learn more.

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