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Cartilage Transplant Gets P.E. Coach Back in Action

Melvin Walker, cartilage transplant patientSome teachers use books and computers to instruct students. Melvin Walker’s classroom is a gym and weight room at Park Hill South High School where he teaches physical education and skills as a track coach. Every day, Melvin, 36, uses exercise to help students realize the importance of a healthy lifestyle. In fact, he works out himself, but found himself facing a life-altering health problem more common for a 70- or 80-year old man.

After his knee swelled during a workout, Melvin consulted orthopedic surgeon James Reardon, MD. "My knee hurt so badly that I couldn’t use the stairs, play basketball or enjoy physical activities with my son."

Dr. Reardon discovered damaged cartilage in Melvin’s knee. Cartilage makes joints easier to move because they allow bones to glide over each other with little friction, explained Dr. Reardon with Northland Bone and Joint.

The typical prescription for such a problem would be a knee replacement, not an ideal solution for Melvin, since the lifespan for a replacement is only 10-15 years, meaning he would face at least one more knee surgery.

Knee Replacement Alternative

Dr. Reardon offered Melvin an alternative, a cartilage transplant. “I have performed over 3,000 knee replacements and most of those patients are highly satisfied,” Dr. Reardon said, “but there is still a difference between the knee you are born with and an artificial knee.”

Dr. Reardon started performing the cartilage transplant in 2000. It's a two-step process that involves harvesting the patient’s own cartilage cells where they grow in a laboratory. When they accumulate to 10 million cells, which takes about about six weeks, Dr. Reardon transplants them back into the knee, where they continue to grow. The process can be used for shoulders, ankles, and in the future, for hips.

During the transplant procedure, Dr. Reardon also straightens a leg, if needed. Straightening the leg allows it to be perfectly aligned so the transplanted cartilage wears evenly.

The Ideal Candidate

Candidates for cartilage transplant surgery must be at their ideal body weight, with cartilage damage isolated to one or two areas of the knee.

Jim Yates, 47, underwent his surgery after suffering pain on the inside of his left knee. His work at a printing company, with frequent squatting and lifting, aggravated his condition.

Patients must commit to extensive post-surgery rehabilitation, including crutches for up to six weeks followed by months of physical therapy. While Melvin completed his therapy years ago, Jim kept busy in the summer with physical therapy, water therapy, stationary bicycling and other exercises to strengthen and stabilize his leg.

“I am doing good," Jim said. "My flexibility is returning along with my strength, but I know it will be a year before I am fully recovered.”

“This is an exciting time in orthopedic medicine," Dr. Reardon said. "If a patient sees us early enough, we can repair many joint injuries to the pre-injury state thru transplantation and realignment, if the patient sees us early enough,” states Dr. Reardon.

Jim and Melvin appreciate the new technology. “I can live a normal life and be active as a PE teacher, coach and father,” Melvin said.

Melvin Returned to the Gym After a Knee Injury at Age 36