Growing up, Chicago area native Ricky Valadez loved sports – rugby, wrestling, football. He found his greatest strength in football. “I loved it,” the now 23-year-old says. “I couldn’t wait to compete each season.”

Star student and athlete at St. Rita of Cascia High School in Chicago, Valadez earned a scholarship to University of Wisconsin-Whitewater in 2012 for his academic and football abilities. He played his first two seasons with no significant injury, but during the first game of the season in the fall of 2014, he injured his knee. The initial injury cascaded into subsequent knee injuries and intense pain, despite various treatments – two arthroscopic clean-up operations and numerous cortisone injections – to continue play.

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“It was clear my left knee was collapsing,” Valadez explains.

The linebacker says he endured patella damage and cartilage deficiency throughout his college career, and it was treated conservatively over the years. But the final blow to his football career came during the 2014-15 season when he suffered a lateral bucket handle meniscal tear.

“The injury essentially left him with no meniscus on the outside of his left knee,” says Preston Wolin, M.D., director of sports medicine at the Chicago Center for Orthopedics at Weiss Memorial Hospital.

The meniscus is a C-shaped cartilage in the knee joint– one that supports in the inside (medial), and the other the outside (lateral) of the knee. The meniscus serves as stabilizer and “shock absorber” for the thighbone-shinbone connection. When they are torn or damaged, severe knee pain results and arthritis can develop.

“We recommended the meniscal allograft transplant for Ricky as the best option for his recurring knee pain and limited activity,” says Dr. Wolin, one of only a half-dozen surgeons in the Chicago area who performs the procedure. Dr. Wolin has performed the procedure overseas due to its rarity.

The meniscus transplant, also known as a meniscal transplant, replaces the missing or damaged meniscus with donor (cadaver) tissue. The procedure is performed under minimally-invasive knee arthroscopy and is considered one of the most technically demanding in sports medicine. If performed by an experienced and skilled surgeon, risks are few. Knee stiffness or incomplete healing are among the most common complications.

“This procedure has been performed for more than 20 years, but it’s rare, mainly due to the strict criteria patients must meet to be considered for the operation,” Dr. Wolin adds.

According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS), older patients with this condition usually undergo knee replacement surgery. But active people younger than age 55 and with no arthritis in the knee joint may be eligible for a meniscal transplant surgery, which ultimately results in reduced pain and improved knee function.

“The procedure doesn’t cure the condition, but the donor tissue helps most patients stay active for at least 10 years,” Dr. Wolin adds.

Valadez underwent the meniscus transplant in March 2015 at Weiss Memorial Hospital.

“The transplant was the best decision I ever made,” Valadez smiles. “I was released from the hospital the same day as the procedure. I was off my crutches after a month and fully recovered within six months, following a physical therapy recovery protocol. I’ve returned to my daily activities, and I thank Dr. Wolin for it. If not for the transplant, I would not know how good life would be.”

Valadez now has stepped off the football field and plans to excel in the field of medicine.  He’s now an EMT and is driven to pursue a career as a doctor assistant.

“I can use my experience in the clinic and surgical settings to help other patients dealing with knee injuries and other orthopedic issues,” Valadez says.

i, AAOS, Meniscal Transplant Surgery:

ii, Meniscal allograft transplantation:

iii Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery, August 5, 2015 issue, Meniscal Transplantation in Symptomatic Patients Under Fifty Years of Age: