When Kaitlin Tatum steps onto a volleyball court these days, she knows she can jump, spike and bump without a problem.
But there was a time not long ago when Kaitlin, a senior at Buford High, didn’t know if she would even be able to play the sport she loves again.
“Sometimes I felt like I would never get to where I needed to be,” she said.
However, Tatum has a clean bill of health today. She’s also Children’s Healtcare of Atlanta Comeback Athlete of the Month.
When she was 5, Kaitlin rolled her right ankle while chasing a friend in her backyard. The pain and swelling lasted longer than a usual sprain or strain. Kina Alarcon-Tatum, Kaitlin’s mom, first took her daughter to see a general orthopaedist, who put her in a cast and on crutches. But after little improvement, Kina requested a referral to a specialist.
They were sent to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta almost a year after the initial injury. Once there, Kaitlin was diagnosed with Trevor’s disease, a congenital bone disorder that affects the growth plate. In Kaitlin’s case, a benign tumor was attached to the growth plate in her ankle.
“So the tumor basically grows with me,” she said. “As I grew up, every couple of years, when it really started to hurt me, I had to have surgery to clean out the tumor as it grew.”
Between 2001-2009, Kaitlin had to have three surgeries — two arthroscopic and one open — to clean out her ankle. All three were done at Children’s.
“Her recovery was very difficult,” Kina said. “I don’t think we realized the type of severity that was going on in her ankle.”
Despite the surgeries, Kaitlin stayed active, playing both volleyball and basketball. She also began competing in Miss Georgia Teen USA pageants.
But before her junior year at Buford, Michael Busch, M.D., the surgical director of the Children’s Sports Medicine Program, and Jorge Fabregas, M.D., a pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Children’s, thought Kaitlin should have one last surgery to remove the tumor and fix her ankle for good.
Dr. Busch and Dr. Fabregas performed Kaitlin’s fourth and final surgery on May 20, 2011. The recovery process included months of physical therapy that forced Kaitlin to miss her entire junior volleyball and basketball seasons.
“The odds were stacked against me to be where I am today,” she said. “It was not likely. It was hard because I didn’t want to mess up all the hard work the doctors had put into me and all the physical therapy I had put in. It really took everything I had to go through and do it the right way.”
Kaitlin followed the instructions of Children’s Physical Therapist Bob Breingan and returned for a successful senior volleyball season. She helped the Lady Wolves reach the quarterfinals of the Class AAA state tournament and earned a scholarship to play at Columbus State University.
Now that her ankle is healed and her confidence restored, Kaitlin feels ready to take on the next level.
“I feel like I can take on the world,” she said. “At first, after the surgery, I thought I’d never walk again because it is such a hard process with extreme physical therapy. Through all of that, I was able to come back and play the sport I love.”