Ace-ing Her Recovery
By all accounts, 14-year-old Dru Hemmann is “ace-ing” her recovery. The Perryville, MO teen has made a remarkable comeback following a traumatic injury and has returned to the sport she loves — competitive volleyball. Her family credits her comeback to an indomitable spirit and a fierce drive to succeed.
While off-road riding with family and friends over Memorial Day weekend in 2016, Dru was on an ATV when she went around a corner too sharp. “I hit loose gravel and flipped,” she says. “I stuck my leg out to catch myself and my leg was crushed.”
“Other people had gotten ahead of us and we were trying to catch up,” says Dru’s mother, Tracy. “When the ATV started to lift up, I thought, oh my God, we’re going to roll over.”
Tracy soon realized something was horribly wrong with Dru’s leg. Immediately she tried to call her husband, Mike, on her cell phone but there was no phone service. Thankfully, Dru’s grandparents soon rode up and left to call 9-1-1. Within minutes, Dru was airlifted to SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital where she was diagnosed with a severe leg fracture and extensive soft tissue loss.
“We had four orthopedic surgeons as well as specialists from plastic surgery, vascular surgery and general surgery all working together to try to save her leg,” says Elizabeth Engel, MD, a SLUCare pediatric orthopedic specialist at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon who was part of the team.
Dru underwent multiple procedures to try to fix the fracture, stave off infection and restore blood circulation in her leg. Despite all the efforts, SLUCare orthopedist Aki Puryear, MD, and SLUCare plastic surgeon Alexander Lin, MD, had to tell the family that an amputation was the best option.
“Dr. Lin had tears in his eyes when he said there was just too much damage and they couldn’t save the leg,” recalls Mike. “I never dreamed we would have to make a decision like that,” adds Tracy. “It was the worst day of my life.”
The family’s decision was made all the more difficult because Dru was a standout athlete. Involved in multiple sports since she was young, Dru was named her school’s Female Athlete of the Year just weeks prior to the accident.
“I cried a lot,” Dru admits. “I had lived my life a certain way for 14 years and now it’s not going to be the same. I was going to have to learn to do everything different. But I did, and it’s fine now.”
Through sheer determination, Dru powered through not one, but two amputations, first below her knee and then above it, as doctors worked to restore mobility. Physical and mental toughness carried her through painful rehabilitation. Still, her parents worried about the physical aspects of Dru’s favorite sport, competitive volleyball.
“I never worried about her not wanting to play,” says Mike. “I worried that she couldn’t and that not doing what she loved might make her upset or depressed.”
A month after she got her first prosthetic, Dru started high school, walking first with crutches and then with none around the entire school track. She also started attending practice for a regional select volleyball team.
Early in September, her coaches decided to let Dru compete. “We were shocked when we got the news,” says Mike. “I couldn’t make it back to the school, so I just waited at work to hear some news.”
In her first serve, Dru scored an ace. “Tracy sent that picture (left) to my phone and I started crying at work,” Mike recalls. “I knew it was game on from that point.”
Dru’s rapid comeback still amazes her doctors. “You sometimes second guess yourself because we are trained to save legs, not remove them,” says Dr. Engel. “To see her getting right back into things within a very short time frame makes you feel like you made the right decision. Even though we might recommend amputation to other patients, Dru shows us all that it’s not the end of her world.”
“I can run, walk and play volleyball,” says Dru. “I just made the high school soccer team and I’m practicing with them, too.” She adds with a twinkle, “Yep, it’s game on!”