Knee Replacement - Virtua

Knee Replacement: Return to the Tennis Court

The following article is from South Jersey Magazine (September 2016):

Norman Birkenmeier’s whole life has been athletics. The one-time captain of his track team in high school has remained active well into his senior years and showed no signs of slowing down until one fateful winter’s day when the then 85-year-old slipped on some ice outside of his home and badly injured his leg. After visiting his regular doctor who had performed five arthroscopic surgeries on him previously, X-rays showed he had ruptured the tendons above his knee.

For the highly decorated and nationally ranked tennis player, it was a blow both physically and mentally. “Nothing in my entire life hurt like that [injury],” Birkenmeier says. “[My doctor] said, ‘You’re too old to play tennis the way you’re playing.’”

After spending four months hoping the injury would heal with no luck, Birkenmeier ended up being referred to Virtua’s Dr. Scott D. Schoifet, an orthopedic surgeon. Because Birkenemeir didn’t seek immediate attention, the injury to his knee had become so severe that Schoifet couldn’t help him until the tendons were repaired.

For Birkenmeier, it was more bad news and more uncertainty on whether or not he’d ever get the chance to play the sport he loves so much again.

“Here’s the thing about knee replacements, most are pretty routine,” Schoifet says. “He walks into my office and says he wants to play tennis. ... I could feel the tendons, nothing was there. You had to see the look on his face when you’re telling him, ‘I don’t think you’ll be able to play.’”

Despite the grim prognosis, Birkenmeier was determined to return to the court. “It probably came from the fact that I’ve always been competitive since I was a kid.”

After another surgeon was able to repair the quadriceps tendon, six months later Schoifet “reconstructed” the knee and after some rest and rehabilitation, Birkenmeier returned to his passion—even improving upon his national ranking. He continues to play around the country, though now he relegates his tournament play to doubles matches as a means to pre- serve his playing time. He also went from playing five- to-seven days a week to two, but not for the reasons you may think.

“It’s hard finding guys who are worth playing,” Birkenmeier quips.

Schoifet credits Birkenmeier’s undeterred spirit with helping guide him through the healing process. “If I had all patients like him, my job would be easy,” he says.

Once Birkenmeier was on the mend, some of the folks in the doctor’s office asked if he was going to return to playing tennis, as if there was ever a doubt. “I said, ‘You know I’m going to go back and play tennis. I have to keep active,’” he says.

Updated September 15, 2016

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