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Lehigh Valley Orthopedic Institute Helps Liberty High Basketball Star Get Back on the Court

Liberty High School basketball co-captain Emma Pukszyn tore a knee ligament

On the night of April 20, 2023, Emma Pukszyn went up for a rebound during a typical Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) basketball scrimmage. However, there was nothing typical about how she felt when she came down.

“I knew something was wrong right away,” says the Liberty High School (Bethlehem, Pa.) senior co-captain who plays both point and shooting guard for the Hurricanes. “I heard something pop. I really wasn’t sure I was hurt until my knee started swelling up.”

Pukszyn had torn the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in her right knee. She had just completed her junior season at Liberty and now wondered if she would be able to play as a senior.

“We’re very proud of how we’ve been able to develop this program. Those last months of recovery are an important time frame to continue to build up core muscles and improve flexibility, especially in terms of the athlete’s specific activity.” - Gabriel Lewullis, MD

“That’s certainly an understandable reaction,” says orthopedic surgeon Gabriel Lewullis, MD, Associate Chief, Division of Orthopedic Surgery, Sports Medicine, Lehigh Valley Orthopedic Institute. “It’s an emotional time for the athlete and the family. Their whole world just exploded in front of them. They naturally wonder what will happen next, how long it will be before the athlete will be back.”

First surgery…

Fortunately, there were no complications in Pukszyn’s surgery, which took place May 9, 2023, at Lehigh Valley Health Network (LVHN) Center for Orthopedic Medicine–Tilghman. Dr. Lewullis performed the arthroscopic procedure (tiny camera and surgical tools are inserted through a small incision), and Pukszyn was able to go home the same day.

The typical recovery time from this surgery is about eight months. Dr. Lewullis says Pukszyn had a lot of support behind her.

“Emma is very dedicated,” Lewullis says. “The entire Liberty community was behind her. Plus, her father, mother and two brothers are all athletes and understood what she was facing.” Her father, Jeff Pukszyn, is the former head coach of the Moravian University (Bethlehem, Pa.) football team and current defensive coordinator for the Whitehall High School (Whitehall Township, Pa.) football team.

…Then rehab

She began the rehabilitation process the day after her surgery. “Our biggest enemy is postoperative stiffness,” says physical therapist Michael Price, manager, Outpatient Rehabilitation Services, LVHN. “We look to get patients such as Emma here right away to get the knee moving. The stiffer the joint, the more difficult the rehab.”

Price uses a variety of techniques to strengthen the joint as well as the muscles above and below the knee, starting with gentle manipulation and perhaps electrical stimulation. Most patients get off crutches after four weeks, which permits use of an exercise bike and weight resistance to fortify the entire knee area. This leads up to the final stages of the therapy, which includes jogging and jump-and-land training.

The goal is to be able to mirror the range of motion of the healthy knee. The entire process usually involves 16 weeks of work. This is part of the problem.

“Basic health insurance generally covers four to five months of physical therapy,” Price says. “But most athletes need eight to nine months to get back to performance level. So, we can lose track of them during a crucial period in recovery.”

Next-level sports rehab

To address this, Lehigh Valley Orthopedic Institute developed Return to Play, an intensive sports performance program geared to the specific needs of the individual athlete. In Pukszyn’s case, it would involve specific basketball movements – agility, changing direction quickly, basic basketball mechanics. This program is not covered by health insurance.

“We’re very proud of how we’ve been able to develop this program,” Dr. Lewullis says. “Those last months of recovery are an important time frame to continue to build up core muscles and improve flexibility, especially in terms of the athlete’s specific activity. It also addresses the psychological aspects of returning to the court or field, being confident in those first moments of getting out there again.”

Return to the court

After some weeks of practice, those moments for Pukszyn occurred on Dec. 19, 2023, at Liberty High School’s Memorial Gymnasium against Emmaus High School.

“I’ll admit I was a little nervous at first,” says Pukszyn, who wears a brace on her right knee for support. “But after a little while I wasn’t conscious of it at all. I’ve been lucky in that I only missed our first four games. Sometimes I can’t believe I was able to get back so quickly.”

Pukszyn’s first shot was a three-pointer, which went through the hoop just as it had so many times before. Her return helped Liberty to reach the 2023-24 Eastern Pennsylvania Conference and District XI playoff semifinals. Next fall, Pukszyn will take her basketball talents to Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pa.

“I can’t thank Dr. Lewullis, Mr. Price, and my Return to Play trainer, Jack O’Grady, enough,” she says. “It’s good to be back playing again.”

U.S. News & World Report 2023

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