In early 1964, Cathy Smithers was an aspiring Olympian, skiing the slopes of Vermont with a close-knit group of friends who trained together. Her specialties were slalom, giant slalom and downhill. “I had a reputation of being the girl that everybody wanted to beat, including the boys, and it was really fun when I beat them!” Cathy recalls. On a practice run that February, she straddled the last gate of a slalom course and went down hard. She shattered both the tibia and fibula of her right leg.
After six weeks in traction, she was released from the hospital. The accident and subsequent skeletal traction and casting left her with tendon and ligament damage and a claw foot. Never one to back down from a challenge, Cathy was determined to ski again. A few years later, she joined her Olympics-bound friends in New Hampshire and skied a couple of runs. Not realizing she was skiing off balance due to her earlier injury, she fell again and re-fractured both bones. At the age of 19, she was told by her doctors that if she ever broke her leg again, she would never walk again. She was forced to give up skiing and her Olympic dreams.
She traded skiing for a new passion, working with children with special needs. “I lost it all, but I regained great purpose in life working with these kids,” she says. Despite the damage to her body, she maintained a positive outlook. Over time, though, the skiing injuries from her teenage years continued to take a toll. The damage to her right foot, ankle and leg was significant. Her foot twisted inward. She walked on the outside edge of her foot with a limp because one leg was more than an inch shorter than the other. Arthritis set in. She endured more than a dozen surgeries on her foot, ankle and leg to straighten her alignment and maintain some range of motion.
She sought out the best specialists, traveling to New York, North Carolina, Texas and other states to learn what they could offer. One doctor recommended fusing the ankle. Another wanted to amputate her foot. She refused both. “I’m a fighter,” Cathy says. “I knew there was someone out there who could help and I was determined to find that doctor.”
During a conversation about newly developed ankle replacement devices, someone recommended Dr. Steven Haddad at IBJI’s Glenview, IL location, so Cathy scheduled an appointment. “Her situation was very complicated,” explains Dr. Haddad. “After all of this trauma, Mrs. Smithers didn’t even really have an ankle left. It was just one big mass of bone that didn’t bend. She had lived through a lot. Mrs. Smithers did face the possibility of amputation because there was so much destruction to her limb and joint, which was significantly deformed.” During their first appointment, Dr. Haddad spent two hours with her, studying every angle of her ankle carefully and delving into her complex medical history and current condition.
According to Dr. Haddad, Cathy needed two-stage reconstruction to address the totality of her injuries. As Cathy remembers, “Most doctors wouldn’t touch me at that point. One told me that my situation was ‘more an art than a science – and I’m no artist.’ But Dr. Haddad was coming up with a plan to fix this and he wanted me to understand everything he was about to do.” She walked away from their appointment thinking, “This is it! I’ve found my guy!”
Cathy says she always knew she would find the right doctor. For her, that surgeon was Dr. Haddad. During the first surgery, he rebuilt her foot to realign it. During later surgeries, Dr. Haddad completed total ankle replacement. Cathy’s range of motion, flexibility and balance improved dramatically. She no longer walked on the side of her foot, as she had for decades. She was recovering well and returning to physical activities that she had abandoned years ago.
During one follow-up visit, Dr. Haddad gave Cathy great news. He said her bone mass and bone quality were both superb. She was thrilled by the report. “As I got up to leave his office, Dr. Haddad said, ‘Go ski with your grandkids and enjoy yourself! You’ve earned it.’” she recalls. “And that’s exactly what I did this year!” says Cathy. During that ski trip, she emailed a few pictures and a note back to Dr. Haddad and the staff at IBJI. “Hello there wonderful people,” the note started. “I want to thank you for all you have done for me … I am skiing! And a friend told me that I still ski just like my Austrian ski coach taught me 50 years ago.”