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Back in the Game

Expert Orthopaedic Surgery Proves a Winner for Teen Ballplayer’s Injured Pitching Arm

Mike Mullenix could tell it was a good hit by the sound of the bat connecting with the ball. The17-year-old Glenbrook South High School baseball player had just thrown the pitch at an American Legion League 2009 summer baseball game prior to senior year. A split second later, the ball hurtled toward him, hitting the tip of his elbow. Mullenix knew he was injured. He assumed he’d sustained a nasty bruise, not an injury serious enough to sideline him from a game he’d played since the age of 6, let alone deny him the opportunity to play his senior year and possibly in college.

“It happened so fast,” Mullenix, now 18, recalled. “I tried to move my arm. I knew something was wrong.”

Mullenix’s elbow was iced before a trip to the Emergency Department at NorthShore Glenbrook Hospital. There, X-rays were taken, and Mullenix’s arm was stabilized with a temporary cast. While in the Emergency Department, the seriousness of his injury began to sink in. “I remember being told it was a bad break,” said Mike’s mom, Judy Mullenix. “From a mother’s perspective, and being a nurse, this was very traumatic as far as dreams being shattered.”

The Mullenix family consulted an orthopaedic surgeon with another healthcare organization where they routinely sought care. They were advised that Mike would require a year to heal—and that he could pretty much forget about playing baseball. Concerned about such a prognosis, they sought a second opinion from NorthShore orthopaedic surgeon Bradley Dunlap, MD, who is on faculty at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine.

Mullenix had an olecranon fracture. The olecranon is near the end of the ulna, the bone in the forearm that forms the pointed portion of the elbow. “To get hit with enough force to cause a fracture in that particular spot is pretty unusual,” said Dr. Dunlap, who specializes in sports medicine and arthroscopic surgery.

With Dr. Dunlap, Mullenix said he felt right at ease. “I appreciated how he talked to me and understood me,” he said, noting that Dr. Dunlap related well to his desire to play baseball his senior year of high school, and possibly college. He attributed that to the fact that Dr. Dunlap also had been a college athlete.

“I suppose that’s how I became interested in this area of medicine,” said Dr.Dunlap. “I don’t overtly think about [my college hockey experiences] when caring for patients, but I do have an understanding of what it’s like to be an athlete, and what my patients might be going through.”

For Mullenix, his thoughts were being able to pitch his senior year and being recruited to play college ball. “I’ve been playing baseball since I was a kid,” he said. “To not play senior year was not an option.”

Dr. Dunlap assured him that he could play again, and in fact, that he would be ready to practice in January before Glenbrook South’s February tryouts. This would entail surgery, followed by three months of physical and occupational therapy, and then Mullenix’s own conditioning.

“Mike is a pitcher who wanted to get back and pitch,” said Dr. Dunlap. “Everything was defined by that goal, which was clear from the beginning.”Mullenix’s injury caused displacement of the elbow that extended up into the joint, putting him at future risk for pain and discomforta s he grew older. “We wanted to get him back to as anatomically normal as possible and give him the best chance at healing,”Dr. Dunlap said.

Advancements in orthopaedics, such as modern fixation techniques and the evolution of sports medicine, which has produced greater understanding of body mechanics in athletes, helped fulfill Dr. Dunlap’s—and Mullenix’s—goals.

Dr. Dunlap performed elbow surgery in July 2009. A metal plate with seven screws was affixed to hold the fracture together, allowing the bone to heal. Appropriately enough, the main screw that places the most compression on the fracture is called the“home run screw.” It lets the bone stand up to the bending and movement in the elbow without pulling it apart.

“Mike was very motivated. I stressed that I could do the surgery, but the rehab was up to him,” Dr. Dunlap said.

Three months of physical and occupational rehabilitation followed the surgery. Mullenix began easing himself into pitching in January 2010 before tryouts in late February. His perseverance and stamina paid off when he made the team and went on to pitch the final season of his high school career. He recalled the stress of his first game since the injury. “It was nervewracking,” Mullenix said, “but once I did it, I thought, ‘OK, I’m back.’”

Mullenix missed the fall showcases, in which aspiring athletes pitch for college coaches looking to recruit players.Although he was already planning to attend Chicago’s DePaul University to major in sports and fitness management, he wanted to see if he still had what it took to play college ball. He pitched in a summer showcase, and three NCAA Division III colleges extended invitations to play for their schools.

“I wanted see if my pitching measured up,” he said. “It was an honor to know they thought I had the strength to play for them.”

“It’s fun to see my patients back participating in the sports they love,” said Dr. Dunlap. “It’s a rewarding experience.”