UI orthopaedic team helps gymnast realize her dreams

Stuart Weinstein, MD, doesn’t believe in granting false hope. Nor does he believe in dashing the dreams of young believers. So when the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital surgeon was visited by a Des Moines-area teen who was also an aspiring gymnast with a sore back, he did what he always does: He delivered the best medical care he could and told her recovery was up to her.

Stuart Weinstein, MD
Stuart Weinstein, MD

“I told her she needs to take care of herself,” says Weinstein, Ignacio V. Ponseti chair and professor of orthopaedic surgery, specializing in pediatric orthopedics and spinal deformities. “I said, ‘This back is going to have to serve you for a lifetime.’”

“Our goal was pain relief, to prevent her back from getting worse,” he says. “What she could do after that would be yet to be seen.”

“The Doctor Said, ‘You’re Done'”

Macall Campbell has wanted to be a gymnast for as long as she can remember. When she was just 4 her mom, Cindy, talked with the coach of a youth team and convinced him to let her daughter practice with the “big girls” – the 5-year-olds – until she was old enough to actually join the team.

It was no surprise, then, that when she started experiencing back pain in the eighth grade, Macall wanted to simply “work through it.”

“At first I didn’t really think anything of it,” says Macall, now 16, of Grimes. “I thought it was sore, thought maybe I overused it a bit. But it became one of those things that kept hurting, and the more it kept hurting the more I knew I had to go to the doctor – but I didn’t want to go to the doctor because I was afraid of what he or she might say.”

Cindy Campbell did take her daughter to a chiropractor, who took some X-rays and discovered she had spondylolisthesis – a slippage of one of the vertebrae in her back. Macall, a freshman in high school, had just made it through state and regional qualifying rounds and was headed to San Diego, Calif., to compete in her first national gymnastics competition.

The chiropractor told her to keep that area of her back stabilized and to strengthen the muscles there to keep them in shape for national competition.

When she got to San Diego a few months later, however, the pain had returned and become worse. Macall had to withdraw from competition and her parents took her to a local emergency room. There they learned the spondylolisthesis had gotten worse, the disk had slipped even more.

“She was initially in a phase one with the slippage, now they were saying she was in a phase three,” Cindy recalls. “A phase four would make it very hard for her to even walk.”

The doctor, knowing they weren’t from the area, told them they needed to get home and talk to a surgeon right away.

They returned to their Grimes, Iowa home, and found an orthopedic surgeon in Des Moines. They set up an appointment with him to review the X-rays, take new ones and discuss their options. They didn’t like what they heard.

“The doctor said, ‘You’re done, you’ll never do gymnastics again, we need to operate,’” Cindy recalls.

They searched for different options, traveling to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Mn., and sending X-rays to a surgeon in Chicago. Each time they were told the same thing: Macall’s gymnastics career was over.”Our concern as her parents was that we wanted her to be healthy, we wanted it to be done by someone who knew what he was doing,” Cindy says, “but at the same time, we were devastated for Macall.”

By happenstance, Cindy says, the mother of one of Macall’s teammates knew someone who’d had experience with Weinstein and UI Children’s Hospital, and mentioned it to Cindy.

“I went online and researched him and realized he was world-renowned, he’d written books on the subject, and he was comfortable with children,” Cindy says. “And here he was, in Iowa City.”

They made an appointment and were able to get in to see him in October 2011.

“One of the first things he said to Macall was, ‘We’ll see what happens, if you’re able to do what I suggest, you might be able to go back to gymnastics,’” Cindy says. “There were no promises, but there was no definite ‘no,’ either.”

“There was a chance, and that’s all she was looking for,” she says.

A Passion Regained

Weinstein performed the surgery that October, and Macall spent six months in rehabilitation and physical therapy. Now she is back to competing in gymnastics. She’s limited in some areas – she can’t do back handsprings, and every now and then has to give her back a day of rest – but has already competed at nationals and hopes to compete at the college level after high school.

Weinstein says Macall’s condition was not uncommon for gymnasts, although hers was more severe than others, partially due to her age.

“She was skeletally immature, which could have caused neurological problems if the vertebrae had slipped any more,” he says.

“Our goal was to prevent this condition from getting worse, to relieve her pain and to get her back to full normal function,” he says. “Whether she was going to be able to return to gymnastics was secondary. That was going to be up to her, and whether she took care of herself and followed the rehabilitation.”

Cindy is grateful to Weinstein for helping her daughter regain her dream.

“It’s one thing when you have a child who is playing a sport because it’s fun,” Cindy says. “But when you have a child who is passionate about something and the to be told you can’t do it anymore, and you haven’t lost the passion, that’s like a kick in the gut, and it wasn’t even me it was happening to. To see her get all of that back, to be back out there, it is just amazing.”

Macall says the surgery gave her a new perspective on many things, not just gymnastics.

“Knowing I did the surgery and came back and even tried to do gymnastics makes me feel better, as a person,” she says. “If I can do that, I can do other things. Coming back from surgery and doing gymnastics makes other things seem so much less difficult – like studying for a test or getting into college.”

–Winter 2013-14 issue