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Surgery gets 83-year-old drag racer back on the track

Feb. 24, 2021, 10:41 AM

John Livingston, left, looks over his ‘Tennessee Thunder’ car prior to a race in Atlanta last year.

by Emily Stembridge

Stephen Engstrom, MD, assistant professor in the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, is an expert at replacing and repairing hips and other major joints. Last year his expertise allowed a unique patient, 83-year-old John Livingston, to return to his passion — drag car racing.

In 2020, Livingston underwent a routine hip replacement. Four days after the surgery, he fell at home and fractured his femur in close proximity to his newly replaced hip. He rushed to his local emergency room, where he was referred to Vanderbilt Orthopaedics.

“Repairing a fracture that close to the hip stem and so soon after the initial surgery can be a complex procedure,” Engstrom said. “I was on call at the time and ended up doing a revision procedure for him, where I was able to fully repair his femur.”

The repair involved fixing the fracture with wire and replacing the original femoral prosthesis with one extending further down into the leg.

“Dr. Engstrom was excellent,” Livingston said. “I don’t have enough good words for him. Because of him, after surgery, recovery and rehab, I was able to get back in my race car.”

Livingston, who lives in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, has been racing since he was a teenager. After an eight-year break to join the Air Force, he started racing professionally in Bowling Green, Kentucky. “I’ve raced just about every kind of car that can be raced,” he said.

Livingston always knew that he would return to racing after his surgery, but at times it seemed like a never-ending road to recovery.

“Patients who suffer this type of fracture usually have to keep weight off their leg for six weeks after surgery,” Engstrom said. “Then we slowly advance the weight bearing until they can walk on the hip again, which is usually over a period of three to four more weeks.”

After more than two months of recovery, Livingston was eager to get back in the driver’s seat.

“I kept telling them, ‘Turn me loose, I want to go back to racing,’” he said. However, when Livingston was finally cleared to return to normal activity, he faced a learning curve after being away for so long.

“It took me a while to get used to driving,” Livingston said. “I told my wife I would try one more time, and if I couldn’t get the hang of it, I would quit.”

Livingston entered Atlanta’s National Hot Rod Association drag racing event in September 2020 as a last-ditch effort. “I got lucky and won it,” he said.

Engstrom says helping patients return to normal is part of what makes his job fulfilling. “There’s really nothing that compares to knowing you were able to help a patient get back to normal life,” he said. “Mr. Livingston was a great patient — he was always upbeat and had a good attitude through the entire process.”

Livingston’s case shows the power of total joint replacement and the importance of dealing with any unexpected complications quickly and effectively.

“Mr. Livingston is a great example of how total joint replacements can change lives. He’s proof that you can have complications after surgery and still have a really great outcome,” Engstrom said.

With his Atlanta win in the books, Livingston decided to keep racing and remain only semi-retired.

“I still do my rehab exercises they taught me every morning and every night,” he said. “I’m coming along pretty good. Getting back in my race car put some pep in me. I’m really enjoying it.”

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