Surgery professor keeps Olympic dreams alive

By Paul Mayne
January 23, 2014

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SKI_kayaGraeme Murray, Red Bull Content Pool
Canadian freestyle skier Kaya Turski wouldn’t be headed to the slopes of Sochi if not for the efforts of Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry professor Dr. Robert Litchfield.

Most Canadians will be watching Kaya Turski’s aerobatic moves when the freestyle skier hits the slopes of the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi next month.

Western Surgery professor Dr. Robert Litchfield, however, will be eyeing her left knee. After all, his surgical skills helped Turski make it to Sochi after she tore her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) less than six months ago.

While a normal ACL tissue graft replacement takes at least a year to fully heal, Litchfield, medical director of the Fowler Kennedy Sport Medicine Clinic, cut healing time in half with an uncommon procedure.

Aware of Turski’s two previous ACL reconstructions, the orthopaedic surgeon proposed an alternative method, if the medal front-runner wanted to get back into action quickly,

“We chose to combine a synthetic ligament with a cadaver graft, which we call an allograft,” Litchfield said. “This would, theoretically, allow her early return to training and sport, and perhaps longer term success than a synthetic alone. (The synthetics) typically fail after a couple years and are hard to revise.

“So, Kaya is somewhat unique with this combination graft.”

SKI_litchfieldWestern News File Photo
Western Surgery professor Dr. Robert Litchfield will be eyeing Canadian freestyle skier Kaya Turski during her Olympic run. After all, his surgical skill helped Turski make it to Sochi after she tore her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) less than six months ago.

Only weeks away from the Games, the Montreal-born Turski remains on track for competition.

 “It is extremely comforting to feel like someone understands that your needs are different as an athlete, especially one looking at what is likely their last shot at the Olympics,” said Turski, who sought out Litchfield last summer following her injury. “In those days after the injury, when my Olympic dream was seemingly lost, or broken, I was doing some research and came across the option of a synthetic ACL graft, which is supposed to cut the rehab time in half.

“Dr. Litchfield came highly recommended from a skier friend of mine, and I couldn't be happier with the choice. So far, everything is very much on track. I am back on snow training daily, doing jumps, and I'm just focusing on getting ready for Sochi.”

Litchfield has been doing this type of work for almost a decade. As the surgeon for the Canadian Alpine Ski Team, he has overseen more than two dozen of the sport’s top athletes. Erik Guay had surgery at Western in July, and is now back as the No. 2 ranked downhiller and a strong medal contender. Jan Hudec, also an Olympian, has been at Western for seven procedures in total on both knees.

And then there is Larisa Yurkiw, whose medal dreams were extended, thanks to Litchfield.

Yurkiw, who just qualified for the Olympics, crashed during training in France in 2009. She tore multiple ligaments in her left knee requiring reconstructive surgery in London.

“It was pretty bad,” she said. “But yes, to be in good enough health to go 130km/hr down a mountain, it’s a blessing. It was a long haul and I had three procedures with Dr. Litchfield, and maybe, I have a new ‘normal’ now.

“I'm really pleased. It's a non-issue now.”

Following a rough few years – even being dropped by the Canadian Alpine Ski Team and losing access to funding and training requirements – Yurkiw battled and earned a spot in Sochi.

“It's an incredible feeling. Validation,” said the 25-year-old Owen Sound native. “I had a complicated summer and had to manage an independent program in order to have another shot at representing Canada at the Games, but it’s all working out and I’m ecstatic.”


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