Shoulder surgery helps get athlete back into competitionSep. 9, 2021, 9:53 AM
by Emily Stembridge
Lauren Nethery has always been an athlete. She’s an avid equestrian, cyclist, fencer and rock climber. She has completed both triathlons and pentathlons, the latter in which she won a silver medal for at the 2018 World Championships.
“Horse training and fencing both positioned me to be a good athlete for most anything I wanted to do,” Nethery said. “I dabbled in triathlons and completed an Ironman race in 2015 while concurrently competing in pentathlons.” Nethery never thought that her athletic abilities could one day be on the line after a split-second cycling accident.
In July 2019, while training for a criterium race (a bicycle race of a specified number of laps on a closed course), Nethery borrowed a racing bike from a friend. At the time, she only owned a triathlon bike and mountain bike — neither of which were suitable for a criterion race. At the start line, she remarked to another racer that the bike was not shifting well.
But Nethery, never one to consider taking the easy way out, went ahead with the practice race.
On her second turn around the track’s corner, Nethery stood on the bike’s pedals to “sprint” down the straight portion of the track. The bike skipped a gear, causing the chain to collide with the spokes of the wheel and locking up the entire back wheel of the bike.
“The whole bike cartwheeled forward at about 25 miles per hour into the concrete,” Nethery explained. “The first thing to hit the ground was my left elbow, which pushed my left humerus into my shoulder joint.”
Nethery initially thought she would walk away from the accident with a few broken teeth and a dislocated shoulder, but after her shoulder was relocated at the emergency room, it became clear her injury was more serious.
Nethery had fractured the bones where her rotator muscles attach, leaving over a dozen bone fragments floating near the fractures. Emergency room staff discharged her with instructions to follow up with an orthopaedic surgeon.
Nethery consulted a few different surgeons in her area, who referred her to other surgeons and suggested surgically opening her arm to assess what procedures she would need for a repair. The surgeons she spoke to said she would probably be able to carry groceries and type on a computer after her recovery, but not much more than that.
“That wasn’t going to fly,” Nethery said. “It was not the kind of return to play I would accept. Many of the surgeons I spoke to were confident my shoulder would never be the same, which was very hard to hear. I went from not knowing it was broken to being told my arm would never be the same again. I was beyond devastated.”
In total, Nethery consulted 19 surgeons before meeting Jed Kuhn, MD, MS, Kenneth D. Schermerhorn Professor of Orthopaedics and Rehabilitation at Vanderbilt. When he took over 30 minutes to listen to and address her concerns, never casting doubt on her ability to return to the lifestyle she enjoyed before the accident, Nethery knew she found the right surgeon. She was on the operating table less than 24 hours after meeting Kuhn.
“Making someone whole after a devastating injury is why we do what we do,” Kuhn said. “At Vanderbilt Sports Medicine our physicians are experts in their fields. While it is true that Vanderbilt physicians are subspecialized and have extensive experience, we also teach others, do research and are always learning new approaches.
“This level of expertise is what sets Vanderbilt Sports Medicine physicians apart,” he said.
Nethery was due to coach the Canadian Pentathlon Team at the Pan Am Games in Peru on July 21, 2019, 11 days after surgery. She made it to Peru with the help of Kuhn communicating a rehabilitation plan with the Pan Am doctors. “The timeline worked out perfectly. Coaching the Pan Am Games was a culmination of years and years of work and training. It would have been soul crushing to not be able to go,” Nethery said.
With help and encouragement from Kuhn and John Goltz, her physical therapist, Nethery returned to racing mountain bikes and competing horses just 12 weeks after surgery.
The trails she bikes now are softer than concrete, which gives Nethery peace of mind. She is looking forward to competing in upcoming downhill mountain biking races and climbing Half Dome in Yosemite Valley next spring.
“I really feel like Dr. Kuhn saved my life, even though he repaired ‘just’ an arm injury. It was crucial to my happiness and quality of life that I be able to return to play at the level I was accustomed to. Today, other than a small scar, you wouldn’t even know which arm was repaired. The outcome is all a credit to Dr. Kuhn,” said Nethery.