By Aimee Zink
For The Corvallis Clinic
Going from an engineer to a surgeon might seem like an uncommon path, but for Dr. Angela Passanise, a traumatic injury made the decision to pursue such a career switch a natural one.
A former college soccer player, she tore an anterior cruciate ligament, commonly known as the ACL, at age 26 in a recreational league. The complex procedure to fix the injury and the long period of therapy to fully recover from it inspired her to abandon engineering and study orthopedic surgery.
“The whole process sparked my interest in the idea of being able to help getting athletes back out to play,” said Dr. Passanise. “I didn’t feel fulfilled and rewarded with engineering, and this is something special to me, to be able to help athletes get back to what they love.”
Competitor from early age
A passion was born in Dr. Passanise when she started playing soccer at 5 years old. She played competitive soccer throughout grade school and high school before starting her collegiate career.
“I didn’t blossom until I was in college,” she said. “It took me that long to really understand soccer. The better I got, the more I loved the game.” That love extended into when she began her environmental engineering career working in municipal water departments. “It was nice to stay fit and play something that I had loved playing as a kid, and that’s what kept me coming back,” she said.
In addition, she dreamed of playing in the Over 30 Women’s National League. And as her skills improved, it seemed like a goal that was within reach. She played for two decades without ever being injured, but in that one key moment, it all changed.
“I thought it was nothing”
One day while on the soccer field, Dr. Passanise heard a pop. Her injured knee swelled, and she was unable to bear weight on that leg. The injury was painful, but she assumed she had simply sprained her knee.
She didn’t know it at the time, but she had torn her ACL, a ligament in the middle of the knee that provides stability for pivoting and shifting motions. This kind of movement is essential in sports like football, lacrosse, and soccer. Female athletes are more likely to tear their ACLs, by a seven to one ratio. Dr. Passanise said physicians have many theories on why this is so but that there is no one particular reason.
Unfortunately, many patients do not seek medical help after they tear their ACL. Recovery can come fast enough that they think they don’t need to. They often go back to their regular activities, including sports, only to end up injuring themselves further.
In fact, Dr. Passanise made this same mistake. “When I tore my ACL, I thought it was nothing,” she said. “Sure enough, I was able to walk in a week. I went back to sporting activities and I played for over a year before I tore my meniscus. Then when they did the MRI, they told me I already tore my ACL. And I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ I didn’t realize that I was truly injured.”
Now she was in for surgery and a long recovery that would change her life forever. The surgery involves harvesting a tendon from another part of the patient, such as their hamstring. Then the surgeon drills bone tunnels in the knee and places the new tendon in the same position as the original ACL, and affixes it there with screws until it heals. It takes around nine months to return to sports, and physical therapy is essential.
Throughout her recovery, she said that the process was “very positive.” She was encouraged and inspired by her physical therapist, the people she met during therapy, and especially her surgeon, Thomas K. Lee, M.D. He was instrumental in her decision to leave engineering and pursue orthopedics, and he even wrote a reference letter for her when she decided to go to medical school.
A surgeon and long-distance runner
Now as an orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Passanise can understand what her patients go through from first-hand experience. “The physical pain goes away pretty quickly,” she said. “The hardest thing for any athlete is the mental anguish of not being able to play. You always want to do something when you can’t do it. That’s what drives me to get up and stay active, because you never know when you won’t be able to.”
Most patients are able to return to the same level of activity as before the injury, but not all. Some are afraid to go back, and some don’t feel that their knee is the same. Dr. Passanise herself is one example. She tried to return to playing soccer, but never felt the same after her two knee injuries.
“I felt that if I couldn’t play at that level anymore, uninhibited and full-go, then I didn’t want to play anymore,” she said. The decision was a difficult one. “I was upset that I couldn’t keep playing. But I was concerned that I would keep hurting my knees and wouldn’t be able to do anything anymore. So I decided that chapter in my life was over.” Now she has moved on to competitive long-distance running.
Dr. Passanise has three children, two-year-old twin girls and a five-year-old boy. Her son has started playing soccer now at the same age when she started. Though she enjoys watching him play the sport she loved so much throughout her life, she sometimes worries for him.
“I get nervous because of the potential for injury,” she said. “It’s hard seeing athletes getting injured so young. These days you’re seeing ACL injuries in 14 and 15-year-old kids.”
Still, she stays positive and hopeful when she sees her young patients recover. For example, she still stays in touch with a former patient in Missouri, a 16-year-old competitive athlete. “She lets me know that she’s doing great, getting back into sports, and that her knee feels great,” she said. “That patient connection, knowing that she’s progressing and back out in the field, is important to me.”