Knee injuries are common in soccer. But coming back to make local history after two of them? It’s not something you often hear about.

Ella Shorkey, 17, is a senior soccer player at Allderdice High School in Pittsburgh. She was named All-WPIAL for her fall 2022 season, becoming the first female athlete from Pittsburgh Public Schools to receive the honor. It’s quite the feat after what she’s been through.

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The Initial Injury

Ella’s first injury occurred during the spring of her freshman year while practicing for her club team at the time. She’s played club soccer since she was 11 and was excited to return after her first high school season.

“During that practice, I was receiving the soccer ball and stepped on the ball with my right foot. Then I landed on my left leg with all of my weight, and something just snapped,” she says. “I immediately knew something was very wrong.”

Ella says her knee was very swollen — the size of a softball — with a stabbing pain if she tried to bend it. She couldn’t walk on it and says it felt very wobbly and unstable.

Eric Anish, MD, an internal medicine and sports medicine doctor at UPMC — took one look at Ella’s knee and recommended she see Dharmesh Vyas, MD. Dr. Vyas is a board-certified orthopaedic surgeon with a subspecialty in sports medicine. He practices at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry Township.

“Being 14 at the time, I just remember walking in and being extremely nervous because my life honestly revolved around soccer, and the thought of not being able to play it was gut-wrenching,” Ella says. “It really was. My mental health had been in a slow decline.”

Dr. Vyas’ presence helped to calm Ella.

“I was in the exam room holding my mom’s hand,” she says. “Dr. Vyas walked in, and I immediately kind of just felt calmer. I don’t know why. I don’t know if it was his face or what it was about him, but he made me feel very comfortable the minute that he walked into the room.

“I kind of forgot about everything that was going on, even though he was checking my knee, of course. But he made me feel safe and like I was in the right place.”

Dr. Vyas examined Ella’s knee and ordered x-rays and an MRI. The scans ultimately confirmed that Ella had a full tear of the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and a partial tear of the meniscus in her left knee. With those injuries, her best chance of playing soccer again was by undergoing surgery.

“I immediately knew I wanted to do the surgery and get back to playing soccer,” Ella says. “But I did injure myself about a week before the whole world shut down due to the (COVID-19) pandemic, so I had to wait.

“Dr. Vyas’ assistant Rachal and his team were great through the whole process. Rachal was always accessible by phone, and the support she gave our family was just extraordinary.”

Courtesy of AAOS and AAOS Now 2022

Prehab in Pandemic Times

Ella had to wait about two months for surgery due to the uncertainty of the world in the spring of 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, she got started as soon as possible with pre-rehabilitation, or “prehab.”

She saw physical therapist Erica Coffey, PT, at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex in Pittsburgh’s South Side for strength training. The prehab helped to prepare her body for surgery.

“Miss Erica is the best,” Ella says. “I do not know what I would have done without her. She helped me with everything regardless of my knee. She worked on my ankles and even my quad when it was hurting me. She just always knew what to do.”

After surgery, Erica worked with Ella on stretching and strengthening. Ella says her recovery was not easy. But the prehab really helped her in those beginning stages of recovery, as it strengthened the muscles around her knee.

She was running lightly again three months after surgery. She played in her first soccer game in the spring of 2021, almost exactly a year after her injury occurred.

A Junior Year Mishap

Another year later, in April 2022, Ella sustained a minor quad injury on the pitch. It required rest, but some fun with her siblings at home took things a little too far. That’s when Ella twisted her left leg, felt a pop, and tore her meniscus in that same knee.

She returned to Dr. Vyas’ office. After the diagnosis and discussion of her options, Ella decided to undergo another surgery so that she could continue playing soccer. Her options were to have a meniscal repair or a meniscectomy — the removal of all or part of the torn meniscus.

Due to the nature of her injury and the time she had to return to play for her senior high school season, Dr. Vyas and Ella decided to undergo meniscus surgery. She also worked with Erica again on her prehab and rehab.

“I basically kept working with Erica throughout the entire two years,” Ella says. “Any time I had a problem, I knew I could always text her.

“The whole process lined up perfectly with my soccer schedule. My first time back on the field was at our summer camp, which would be my last time going to that camp with my high school team. And it just was really special that I was there on time and was able to participate in that.”

Coming Into Her Own

Ella describes her experience with UPMC as unique and not really what she expected.

“I had gone to other physical therapy places before, and I’ve never really felt the respect that I felt at UPMC,” she says. “Specifically, the bedside manner that Dr. Vyas and Miss Erica have. I’m obviously not an adult, but I feel like they talked to me as an adult, and I really appreciated that.

“They knew I was the one having to sit out of my sport and spoke to me like a true athlete — not just like another person in the office.”

Nowadays, Ella is reflecting on how this experience has shaped her. She says there are times when her knee feels odd, like she needs to shake it out. But overall, the knee feels stronger due to all of her work in PT.

She thinks all of her strength training actually made her a better soccer player.

“I actually wrote my college essay about these two injuries,” Ella says. “Before I tore my ACL, I felt that all I really had was soccer. Afterward, like when I had to sit in a bed and not do anything for three weeks, it made me reach out to different things and pick up old hobbies.

“It made me feel like more than just an athlete. Sometimes, it was really hard for me to see those things in myself. I think this process was essential to me becoming the person in front of you today. I’m honestly thankful for it. Even though it was terrible, I am thankful for it.”

After being named All-WPIAL in the fall of 2022, Ella is continuing to dominate the soccer field and dream of her future. In the winter 2022-2023 season, Ella is playing in showcases and looking at colleges with hopes of playing at the next level. She currently plays for the BVB International Academy club team and trains with Pittsburgh Penguins sports performance coaches at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex.

Learn more about the ACL Program at UPMC Sports Medicine.

About Sports Medicine

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