Posted by Brigham and Women's Hospital June 25, 2012
On June 25, the fastest swimmers in the U.S. will convene in Omaha, Nebraska, for the start of the 2012 Olympic Team trials. Among those elite swimmers will be 44-year-old Dara Torres, a five-time Olympian vying to compete in her sixth Olympic Game.
To watch her slice through the water, you’d never think her body had any weakness. But several years ago, Dara Torres – winner of 12 Olympic medals (four gold, four silver, four bronze) – had such debilitating knee pain that she had to put swimming aside. In fact, Torres’ knee had deteriorated so badly she could barely pick up or walk with – never mind run after – her then 2-year-old daughter. “Within a year I went from about grade two arthritis to grade four arthritis,” Torres remembers. “I had no cartilage in my knee and it was bone on bone.”
Like all competitive athletes, Torres was no stranger to the aches, pains, and injuries endemic to intense training. But this time it was different. “The biggest thing I was scared about was that I wouldn’t be able to take care of my daughter,” she recalls. She also wondered, “Will I be able to have the same quality of life and be able to swim again?”
The typical treatment for such severe osteoarthritis is knee replacement surgery. But after extensive research both inside and outside the U.S., Torres discovered a new and surprising option at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital Cartilage Repair Center – cartilage regeneration (also known as autologous chondrocyte implantation or ACI) – in which the patient’s cartilage cells are collected, grown in a culture until they multiply to roughly 12 million cells, then implanted back into the knee, replacing the damaged cartilage.
“The surgery that I had was really incredible. I didn’t know there was anything out there like that,” Torres recalls. “Basically, it’s all me. It’s my cartilage.”
The recovery time from the surgery and implantation is roughly one year. Now, two years later, Torres is busy with her daughter again. She’s also working toward that possible comeback at the 2012 Olympics.
“There’s no possible way I would have been able to do this if I had not come to Brigham and Women’s and the Cartilage Repair Center,” Torres says, “There’s just no way that my knee would be where it is right now and where it needs to be for an Olympic Games.”
– Linda W