To read the full article by Zach Buchanan, click here.
Two months since his catastrophic knee injury, Steven Souza Jr. is making a surprisingly fast recovery
It had been agreed. When the time came, the doctor would give Steven Souza Jr. a signal.
The Diamondbacks outfielder sat in the hospital room, his braced left leg up on a chair. Just a week earlier, his left foot had skidded across home plate during an exhibition game at Chase Field. His knee had buckled, causing two of his knee ligaments to rupture and a third to stretch. Only days after that, he’d undergone reconstructive knee surgery.
He was on strict orders to stay off his feet, but then the doctor gave him his cue. He needed to be upright for this, so Souza hoisted himself onto his crutches. He wanted to watch the birth of his second child, a daughter.
The outfielder’s time on his feet was brief. Sloane Souza was brought into the world after labor that was mercifully quick for both Steven and his wife, Mikaela. When it was time to move from one part of the hospital to another, husband and wife rolled there side by side in matching his and hers wheelchairs, with Sloane in Mikaela’s arms.
Two months down the road, things couldn’t be more different for the Souza family. Before and after Sloane’s birth, Mikaela used to have to help Steven into the shower and assist him with the donning of his socks and shoes. “A nine-month pregnant lady can’t even bend over to put her own shoes on,” she points out. Steven couldn’t hold Sloane unless he was sitting. Playtime with his two-year-old son, Micah, was confined to what fun they could create with the couch cushions.
But now the 30-year-old outfielder walks without assistance or protection, having ditched the knee brace six weeks after surgery. He can play outside with his son and can resume his usual responsibilities, making sure bed and bath time go off without a hitch. He can tend to Sloane’s every need — “It’s like he was never injured,” Mikaela says –and can even throw up a couple of shots on the mini basketball hoop in the Diamondbacks clubhouse.
A return by season’s end remains unlikely, but Souza is brimming with confidence that he’ll be himself when he does make it back. When he was writhing in pain and clutching his knee on the Chase Field dirt, he worried his career had ended. He’s long since escaped those doldrums.
“There’s still a long way to go,” he says, “but if it keeps going like this, I’m extremely confident that I’m going to be back to normal.”
Mikaela Souza didn’t see her husband’s injury happen. She was too pregnant to be at the game, and the exhibition wasn’t on TV. She was following along on her phone when she saw he’d been injured. “I just waited for that phone call,” she says. “That dreadful phone call, you know?” Steven has seen the replay, but not willingly. “My dad accidentally showed it to me,” he says. “I saw it quick and turned. I can’t really watch it again.”
Mikaela quickly compartmentalized the event – “I didn’t have time to think about this knee injury,” she says – but it hung over Steven like a black cloud. Early on, he received a medical opinion that was less than optimistic. “I won’t say the doctor’s name,” Steven says, “but there was a doctor that was pretty like, ‘Yeah, I don’t know if you’re ever going to be the same.’” That weighed on him, at least until he received a second opinion from orthopedic surgeon Dr. Timothy Kremchek.
Kremcheck, who is also the medical director for the Reds, offered a much rosier outlook. He’d done a surgery like this one a few years before on infielder Zack Cozart. That procedure had happened in the middle of the summer and Cozart had been ready by the subsequent spring training. Hearing Kremchek’s prognosis boosted Steven’s spirits. “That’s when I was fine,” he says. “I got out of the self-pity.”
Souza had visited Kremchek in Cincinnati for a consult but ended up staying the next day to undergo surgery. Immediately after, Kremchek charted an aggressive rehabilitation plan. Whereas other surgeons might have wanted to keep the outfielder’s leg immobilized for 12 weeks, Kremchek wanted him in a brace for just six. Anything longer, and he’d suffer too much muscle atrophy. His bones would become brittle, delaying his return.
“You or me, I might treat a little slower,” Kremchek says. “Him I treat a little faster because you’ve got to have that motion to get your strength and function back for him to be able to continue to participate at a high level. You have to treat him different.”
Souza checked several boxes to facilitate such a timeline. He was young and, other than his knee, healthy. The tissue in his knee was in good shape, and his ligaments could be reattached in the correct anatomical positions. The surgery wasn’t taking place too long after the initial injury, preventing loss of strength. And Souza was motivated. “You could just see in his eyes that he was going to do whatever it took to get back,” Kremchek says.
Souza returned to Arizona and worked on flexibility and strength with the Diamondbacks training staff. He returned to Cincinnati in the middle of May for a checkup and left Kremchek impressed. The outfielder could reach full (zero-degree) extension with his knee and could bend it to 122 degrees. His target had been 90 degrees. “A lot of that has to do with the rehab they’re doing in Arizona,” Kremchek says. “I have to take my hat off to those guys.”
The brace could come off.
To read the full article by Zach Buchanan of The Athletic, click here.
(Top photo of Steven Souza Jr. during 2019 spring training: Matt Kartozian / USA Today Sports)
Dr. Timothy Kremchek is a board-certified orthopaedic and sports medicine surgeon at Beacon Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine. He is the team medical director of the Cincinnati Reds, physician consult for the NFL and medical director for numerous local college and high school athletic programs.