In June of 2000, I was guest teaching at the American Ballet Theatre studios in New York City when I landed from a jump I had done countless times before and crumpled to the floor. I wasn't entirely taken by surprise. My right knee had been an accident waiting to happen ever since I had partially torn my anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) 12 years earlier during a partnering mishap. This time though, because my leg was completely unstable when I tried to stand up, I knew the ligament had snapped in two. I hopped over to a chair, asked for an ice pack, and taught the rest of class by having students demonstrate when I called out the names of steps. Then I took a cab home, looked up the number for the Hospital for Special Surgery, and fell into a fitful sleep.
The next morning, I made an appointment with Frank Cordasco, M.D., a top "knee man." To my immense relief, I learned from him that fairly recent techniques for surgical repair of ACL tears had been upping the odds of successful outcomes. He also assured me that as a Third Ager I was still a good candidate for the procedures. I could get an "autograft" fashioned from one of my own patellar tendons or hamstrings or I could opt for an "allograft" from a deceased donor.
Dr. Cordasco explained that in the latter case, given that there is no blood flow in soft tissues, my body wouldn't recognize the graft as foreign and try to reject it. Also, my allograft would come from a tissue bank that certifies the cadavers are disease-free. At the time there wasn't enough data to compare failure rates between patients receiving the more conventional autografts and the newer allografts, but I didn't care. The notion of having surgery on my good knee in order to "harvest" tissue for the injured knee gave me serious pause. and I didn't want to inflict a second injury on my right knee to create a graft. I decided to take my chances with the cadaver.
I'm glad I did. By now studies have shown that the failure rate for allografts is only slightly higher than for autografts - about 8% vs. 3%. Also, research confirms that allograft patients experience far less pain and a much quicker recovery than autograft patients do. In my case, I had an epidural and went home that afternoon. The following day, I went to my first appointment at Marika Molnar's West Side Dance PT. The therapy not only got me back on my feet but eventually back on my toes.
See Also: Dancing As Exercise
That still amazes me when I think back to the day my physical therapist unlocked the "joint" on my knee brace three weeks after the surgery and said cheerfully, "Now it's time for gait training." As I took my first uncertain steps, pirouettes seemed to be a very long way off. Yet I was soon walking at a fine clip on a treadmill and using the StairMaster. By post-op week six, I could balance on my right leg on a trampoline. That's when I first realized that my knee was absolutely stable. For more than a decade, I had been avoiding certain ballet steps involving twisting motions, but I envisioned being able to do them again.
That is exactly what has happened. Better yet, as a dance educator for inner city schools, I can safely wrangle a whole gym full of rambunctious boys and girls with no fear of falling. For me, the allograft has unquestionably proved to be the right choice. I silently thank my anonymous benefactor every day for the gift that has made this chapter of my life, once more with feeling, my time to dance.
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