The detaching cartilage left Christian dealing at times with the kind of pain that occurs when bone meets bone.
That Christian managed to play basketball at all during his sophomore year speaks to his love for the game.
“It was hurting really bad my sophomore year,” he said.
In addition to the pain, the OCR weakened Christian’s left knee, prompting him to adjust his running and jumping technique to compensate for the lack of strength to push off on it.
“On fast breaks, I would slow up so I could go off two legs from the right side,” he said. “I used to always dunk off of one leg, now I was always jumping off two.”
Added Damian, “He’s righthanded, but when you would watch him in a game, everything he would do he would go to the left side of the court and he’d finish going off his right leg so he wouldn’t have to go off his left.
“By the end of the season we definitely knew we needed to look into it.”
Search for solutions
Thus began the Ratzlaffs’ long, and often frustrating, journey to find a solution.
They began by consulting an orthopedic doctor in Newton who had treated Christian after the teen fractured a vertebrae and pelvis during his freshman year of football.
“She right away guessed what it was, just from the examination,” Christian said. “She said (OCD) was fairly uncommon, but if it was what she thought it was, then it was going to be kind of a big issue.”
According to one source, OCD occurs in only 15 to 30 people per 100,000 in the general population each year.
Their orthopedic doctor said Christian’s condition likely began with a stress fracture at some point in his youth.
“I don’t even remember how long it’s bothered me,” Christian said of the knee. “I remember noticing it since middle school.”
Damian said they took their son’s discomfort in stride at first.
“In middle school everything hurts when you’re growing,” he said. “You kind of figure it’s just growing pains.”
On the advice of the doctor, the Ratzlaffs consulted a pair of knee specialists. Both agreed with the diagnosis, but suggested opposite approaches to deal with it.
“One wanted us just to sit for six weeks, which was the first thing that we heard—and that was devastating for us,” Amy said.
Given Christian’s age, the specialist thought the knee might still be growing and that a blood source could still develop.
“The second doctor was just the opposite,” Damian said. “He was blunt and straightforward: You need surgery to put screws in your knee; you’re going to be out for a year, and may never play again.
“That was obviously brutal for us,” he added. “Amy and I said we’re going to have to be proactive in finding somebody who knows and deals with (OCD) more than just sometimes.”
Trips to Kearney
Through an acquaintance of Amy’s, they connected with a specialist in Kearney, Neb.
Over the ensuing months, the family made the 500-mile round trip to Kearney more than a half-dozen times. The plan was to drill 18 micro holes in Christian’s knee in the hope of getting it to bleed so the cartilage would reattach with the help of screws.
Amy said, “We got into surgery and (the doctor) said the cartilage is not completely detached—we’re not going to put screws in, we’re just going to drill it. We think this is going to be good.”
The specialist recommended that Christian not play football that fall, so he began to get ready for basketball.
“(The knee) was still bothering me, but I felt like I was in good shape and ready to go,” Christian said. “Looking back, I don’t think it ever really healed at all.”
That became evident when basketball practice began.
“The second day we had done a defensive slide drill,” Christian said, “and after that I noticed (the knee) was catching when I pulled my leg back. That was the cartilage hanging off, I guess.
“I kept playing for another couple of minutes and the piece was just off. I could feel it floating around. I thought it was part of my knee cap or something. ”
The family discussed the idea of letting Christian continue, thinking the knee would need surgery anyway at the end of the season. But a visit to the doctor convinced them otherwise.
“If he would have kept playing, the piece, which had bone on it, would have migrated throughout his knee and started tearing away his tendons,” Amy said.
“At that point you’re like OK, now what? You’ve gone to specialists who have told you basically what they think: This isn’t a good thing.”
It was at that point that the Ratzlaff believe they received some Divine intervention.
Through Amy’s connection with a former volleyball teammate who was now a doctor, the family met with a surgeon who specializes in knee surgery.
Through him, they eventually connected with the surgeon who had trained him, Riley J. Williams III, who practices at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City.
Amy said, “We called up to New York and one of the first things out of the nurse’s mouth was, ‘We want a terminal relationship with you. We want to see you, and we never want to see you again.’”
The Ratzlaffs were impressed with the get-it-done-and-get-back-to-playing approach.
“You don’t want somebody saying we can give you a 50-50 chance,” Damian said. “We felt like at the other places, that’s what they were saying.”
The Ratzlaffs discovered Williams has been a pioneer in using live-tissue transplants to regenerate the knees of athletes.
“People from all over the world fly in to them,” Amy said. “(Williams) did 67 of them last year alone.”
The Ratzlaffs decided to move ahead. Following an MRI, Christian’s name was placed on a donor’s list in New York.
“He was put on a list that matches his age, so the cartilage had to be of similar age to his existing cartilage, and the curvature of the knee,” Amy said.
At the time, the Ratzlaffs were told the wait could be as short as two weeks. Once a tissue match was found and tested, they would receive a call on a Monday and surgery would follow the following Wednesday.
But weeks stretched into four months—with no word from New York in the meantime.
The family could only wait as Christian’s junior basketball season progressed without him.
“On game days, our house wasn’t a happy place,” Damian added.
The call came in late March, but with the good news came another round of anxiety.
“I think each of us had the mentality that if something was going to go wrong it was going to go wrong,” Amy said. “It just felt that way the whole time.”
And for good reason, it seemed. When they arrived at the Wichita airport, they were told their flight had been delayed—a delay that would cause them to miss their connecting flight from Atlanta to New York.
“We were hearing that makeups weren’t happening for another 24 hours, which meant we were going to miss his (knee) part, and if we missed his part we would have to go home and get back on the list again,” Amy said.
But their journey took a dramatic turn toward the positive: For reasons they still can’t explain, the airline already had them booked on the next flight out.
“You just feel that God was maybe sending a message: You know what, you guys need to chill out,” Amy said.
From that moment, the trip—and the surgery—fell together like clockwork.
The surgeon used a drill to auger a hole in the bottom of the bone near the knee, according to Amy. The donor’s live tissue was then plugged into the hole.
“It provides a smooth surface that won’t catch—they just tap it in there,” Amy said. “They said bone wants to grow on to other bone. Because it was a live piece, your body says OK, and it grows.”
Christian was released earlier than expected, and the family returned home the night before Easter.
Christian has been undergoing rehab therapy twice a week in Wichita. The family couldn’t be more pleased with the results.
“It’s been remarkable,” Amy said. “That strength is back, his mobility’s back, the pain isn’t there. The doctor said we don’t really expect you to have trouble with this anymore. He’s seen so many of these, he feels Christian’s chances for a full recovery are very, very good.”
Christian won’t even need to wear a knee brace when he returns to competition.
“The way the doctor described it, there’s nothing that’s damaged in there now,” Damian said of his son’s knee. “Everything in there is healthy.”
Anything for a child
Even though Damian and Amy both come from athletic families, and have been involved in that endeavor as players and coaches, they said getting Christian back on two healthy knees was never about their drive to see him compete again.
“Some people probably think we’re pushing him to do it, but he’s asking us to go to the gym and play,” Damian said. “It’s about love of the game. It’s what he would choose to be doing if he doesn’t have anything else.”
Amy strongly agreed.
“It wasn’t for the sake of sports,” she said. “It’s for a child who wants to be active. If you’re parent, and if there’s a solution out there, how do you not at least try it?
“I think some people are just wired to play,” she added. “It’s like if you’re musically talented and lose your hearing, or an artist and lose your eyesight. God gives gifts, and I think Christian is wired to want to compete. A lot of kids are. If they can’t, it’s like a piece is missing.”
That’s how Christian sees it, too.
“Everything was just kind of out of whack while I was waiting (on the sidelines),” he said. “I just want to make the most of it. I definitely want to play in college because I feel I haven’t had a chance.
“And it’s not just for sports,” he added. “If I want to go for a run, or work out hard, or ride a bike—if I wasn’t able to do that, that’s a whole other thing to think about.”
If Christian’s progress continues on the present course, he could be released to beginning running by the end of June. He is hoping for the opportunity to play football this fall.