For Stevie Joo, it was a Sunday like any other: He was playing basketball with his friends at a South San Francisco gym.
But after a high jump, he landed oddly on a team member’s foot, and felt something pop in his right leg. He fell to all fours.
“I went to school for kinesiology and became a strength and conditioning coach, and I knew I had torn my ACL,” Joo said. “I was more worried about the extent of the injury than the pain. Some people just don’t return to sports after that.”
Joo’s dad, Alfonso, took him to the emergency department at Kaiser Permanente South San Francisco Medical Center. The next day, Joo had an MRI.
The results confirmed that he had a torn ACL, or anterior cruciate ligament, which helps stabilize the knee joint.
“I was devastated,” Joo said. “My jobs revolve around sports and fitness, and I thought everything I worked for was gone and my career was in jeopardy. My dad and I run a youth basketball program, BullDawgs Basketball Club, and I wasn’t sure how I could be there for our kids.”
“Monico kept it real with me,” said Joo. “He didn’t tell me it was going to be OK. But if I gave him 100% it would be possible to make a full comeback.”
In good hands
After 4 weeks of physical therapy, Joo’s surgery was scheduled for March 2016. Chris Lehman, MD, orthopedic surgeon, reconstructed Joo’s ACL in a procedure that comprises 30 to 40 steps and spans 2 hours.
All Kaiser Permanente medical centers across Northern California provide ACL reconstruction, but Dr. Lehman is among 20 surgeons in the region who specialize in complex or rare cases.
“We reconstruct the ACL using another part of the body to replace the ligament — for Stevie, we used the patellar tendon. I customize a patient’s ACL reconstruction to meet their needs with the goal of getting them back to full activity,” said Dr. Lehman.
The morning of his surgery, Joo felt anxious. But as he was rolled into the operating room, he heard his name called: Both the operating room nurse and his anesthesiologist had children enrolled in the BullDawgs, and they recognized Joo immediately.
After 2 weeks of rest and icing, Joo got back in the gym with Tangaan, and worked on his mobility and range of motion.
“Stevie was committed to the process from the beginning,” said Tangaan. “He was willing to do whatever it took to get back into the game as soon as possible.”
It took Joo about 2 months to walk without crutches and 3 months to walk without a limp. After 5 months, he was running.
A family affair
As Joo recovered, Alfonso Joo began to have difficulty walking — his knee hurt and would “lock up.”
Alfonso Joo’s appointment with Dr. Lehman showed he had a torn meniscus, which often occurs after years of playing sports. He was quickly scheduled for surgery to repair the cartilage in his knee.
“My son was down, and then I was down,” said Alfonso Joo. “We had kids who needed us. I thought, ‘What are we going to do?’”
Alfonso Joo told Dr. Lehman that he had to run by April, when college scouting season began.
“I told him I’d be like Rocky Balboa. After surgery, I’d be on crutches, then I’d drop a crutch, then the other, and I’d take off running.”
Right before the surgery, Dr. Lehman put his cell phone up to Alfonso Joo’s ear.
“He was playing the Rocky theme song. I’m like, ‘Yeah! Let’s do this!’”
After surgery, Alfonso Joo began physical therapy with Tangaan, too.
Recovering ‘hand in hand’
When the Joos think back on their recovery, they laugh, but also say they brought strength to one another.
“At night, we both iced our knees in the living room. We had our physical therapy back-to-back,” said Alfonso Joo. “We were hand in hand in our recovery.”
Alfonso Joo met his goal to run again by April. And Stevie Joo is now almost fully recovered.
“I can do all the things I used to be able to do. I can’t jump as high, but that will come in time,” he said.
“When you’re injured or sick, you may think that you’re done,” said Alfonso Joo. “But if you put in the work, you can do anything.”