Cartilage Transplant Returns Brittney to Athletic Activity
Procedure by Dr. Brett Owens allows 22-year-old to once again run, exercise pain-free
Brittney Lowe had a sinking feeling of déjà vu the morning she rose to get out of bed and realized she suddenly couldn't walk.
"It was an absolute inability to bear weight on my left leg," she says.
Not again, she thought. Lowe had previously had surgery on her left knee for an unusual fracture and bone condition. Now it seemed it was acting up again. The next few weeks saw little improvement and getting back to running or going to the gym were out of the question.
At 22, after a youth spent playing competitive softball and field hockey, the Smithfield native feared it was the end of her active lifestyle.
But her hope was restored when she went to see Brett Owens, MD, a surgeon with the Lifespan Orthopedics Institute and University Orthopedics who specializes in repairing, restoring and researching knee cartilage. Dr. Owens is a team physician for the Providence Bruins, Brown University's athletics department and the U.S. Men's National Lacrosse team.
Lowe, who now lives in Webster, Mass., was referred to Owens by the doctor who had operated on her five years earlier. That was when she was first diagnosed with osteochondritis dissecans, a condition in which the bone beneath the cartilage in a joint is deprived of blood flow and is at risk of dying. The condition typically afflicts adolescents and rest will often allow it to heal.
In Lowe's case, however, a long period of popping and clicking in her knee – which she shrugged off as an athlete's usual aches and pains – led to a devastating injury.
"I was walking up the stairs and I heard a crack in my knee. It was the most pain I ever felt in my life," she says. "That was essentially when the bone in my knee broke off. I was unable to walk for a long time."
Following the surgery, Lowe, who was a starter on her varsity field hockey team at Smithfield High School, was able to return to playing intramural softball and soccer at the University of Rhode Island. But the pain suddenly returned one day in 2015 after the URI graduate went for a routine run.
Dr. Brett Owens examines patient Brittney Lowe's knee.
Images of her knee revealed that the lesion in her lower femur (the medial condyle) had never truly healed, said Owens. He told Brittney she was an excellent candidate for a procedure called an osteochondral allograft transplant, which would involve removing the diseased bone and cartilage in her knee and replacing it with healthy bone and cartilage from an organ donor – much like a lung or heart transplant. Dr. Owens is among the few doctors in Rhode Island that perform the operation and he does so regularly.
The procedure has been around since the 1970s, but Owens says it has become increasingly effective thanks to more sophisticated instruments and techniques that allow for smaller incisions and more effective harvesting and implanting of bone and cartilage grafts.
Lowe had to wait a few months for an appropriate donor. When one became available, she almost immediately underwent the operation.
"What we did was remove her loose piece of cartilage and bone and create a cylindrical or circular recipient hole and then we were able to take a plug or dowel from the organ donor and transplant that," he says. "It's very similar to transplanting a piece of sod from your yard in order to fill a defect."
The recovery kept her in physical therapy and unable to return to her job as a classroom aide at a Connecticut elementary school for a couple of months. But soon she was able to walk unassisted. And six months following the procedure, a very fit looking Lowe was out on a sunny morning comfortably running down an uneven dirt trail in Smithfield's Deerfield Park, not the least bit concerned about getting yanked around by Max, her large and powerful Labrador-Great Dane mix.
Several days later, Lowe had her final follow-up. Any pain? Owens asked. No, she said.
"You've been running?"
"I can do over a mile," she said. "I've been running every day and working out every day at the gym."
When Lowe got on an exam table, Owens flexed her leg at the knee. No swelling, he noted.
"Is there anything you are not doing that you want to do?" he asked. When she said no, he added, "I wouldn't hold you back. Do what you want to do."
They're words she never imagined she'd hear when she couldn't walk without pain.
"I thought I would have to give up on things that a girl in her 20s should be able to do and now I'm able to do them all," she says. "It's the best thing that's ever happened to me. Dr. Owens and his team were incredible."