Olivia Stefanik was the first person in Colorado and second in the western U.S. to receive the Bridge-Enhanced ACL Restoration (BEAR) Implant. After the now 17-year-old tore her ACL at a high school wrestling meet in December 2021, she discussed her options with orthopedic surgeon Dr. Alex Meininger of Steamboat Orthopaedic and Spine Institute. Dr. Meininger thought Olivia would be a great candidate for the BEAR Implant, which had just been recently approved by the FDA, and asked if she would be willing to be his first patient. Olivia and Dr. Meininger spoke with us about why she was a good candidate for the BEAR Implant, what her experience has been and how she’s been doing since returning to her beloved sport of pole vaulting.
Q: How did you tear your ACL?
Olivia: I was pulled into an awkward position during the first school wrestling match of the season and felt instant pain. I knew something happened right then and there because it hurt really bad. I went to the hospital for an X-ray, then an MRI soon thereafter. Then I was told I’d torn my ACL.
Q: Tell us about the pain you were experiencing right after your injury and whether you were concerned about being able to play sports again.
Olivia: I was in a lot of pain and had bone bruising and fluid on the knee. I just knew something was wrong. The possibility of not being able to pole vault again did occur to me, and I thought about it a lot right after surgery. The pole vaulting season was just starting, and I had to sit out on the sidelines. That was hard because although I play multiple sports, pole vaulting is the sport I enjoy most. I was definitely worried about returning to any sports that involved running.
Q: Tell us about your decision to get the BEAR Implant?
Olivia: Dr. Meininger told me about the BEAR Implant after my MRI. He was completely honest and told me the procedure was very new at the time. But he was confident with the procedure, so when he asked if I would be his first patient, I agreed. I didn’t want a graft because I don’t want another hole in my knee or anywhere else. So, I chose the BEAR Implant.
It felt courageous to be his first patient, and it’s been working out well for me. It was a once-in-a-lifetime offer, and I wanted to try a procedure that was both new and interesting. My mindset in deciding to get the BEAR Implant was similar to when I started pole vaulting my freshman year. The track coach thought I looked like a pole vaulter and suggested it at the first practice of the year. I decided to just give it a try and later fell in love with it. In both cases, I was invited to do it, and I wasn’t sorry I did. My mom thinks the BEAR Implant is really interesting, and we were both excited that I was the first person in Colorado to get it. I like to joke that instead of being “robot girl,” I’m “sponge girl” because the BEAR Implant is like a sponge in my knee. I feel better to know that I didn’t have to get something taken out of me to fix my ACL. I think if the decision to get the BEAR Implant feels right to you, you do you – it’s your body.
Q: Why was Olivia a good candidate for the BEAR Implant?
Dr. Meininger: Olivia was a good candidate for the BEAR Implant because she is an active adolescent multi-sport athlete who relies on a stable knee for sports, school and work here in Colorado. The BEAR Implant was well suited because her knee injury revealed a healthy ACL tissue stump and her young age predicted she would do well with a minimally invasive surgery. Lastly, and maybe most importantly: Olivia was motivated to recover and was compliant with the prescribed rehab.
Q: How was the rehab experience?
Olivia: Injuring my knee was definitely a big thing. It’s difficult because you have to relearn a lot of things and you can’t just jump back into what you’re used to doing. Rehab and physical therapy went pretty smoothly, but I had to re-strengthen my muscles to get back to where I used to be. There were a few other girls who tore their ACLs this past year who didn’t get the BEAR Implant, and in my opinion, recovery seemed to be harder for them.
Going through the rehab process actually sparked my interest in becoming a physical therapist. I’m from a small town where there are only two physical therapists, and I got to work with both of them. I did everything from workouts, machines and stairs to ice therapy, massages and more. We did everything we could, and it was nice to meet people in the community who helped me recover.
My PT and I got to see my MRI at the six-month mark and viewed them together to see how my knee was healing. I could see the differences and how well my ACL was growing back, which was really cool. I could see all the growth, which looked like roots. Today, I’m happy and I feel comfortable in my body and my knee.
Dr. Meininger: Olivia demonstrated tremendous resolve and dedication to her knee. She was ahead of the curve in almost every phase of her rehabilitation. I was excited to see her progress on her journey back to pole vaulting, as well as hear about her milestones as she returned to horseback riding and even to snowboarding. She is a remarkable patient, athlete and community member. I am impressed by her bravery and steadfast dedication to recovery. We are proud to be a part of her care and watch her return to work, sports and an active lifestyle. It has been rewarding to be a part of her recovery.
Q: Can you tell us about your return to sport experience?
Olivia: After I completed rehab and was preparing to return to track and pole vaulting, I was most worried about anything involving running. My coaches allowed me to focus just on pole vaulting and avoid running, other than the short sprint toward the mat. It worked out because when vaulting, there’s a driving leg and a planting leg. Luckily my injury was on the driving leg, so my injured knee hasn’t been taking the full impact of my body weight.
About a year after my surgery, I started to practice with the team when the track season started. I now spend a lot of time stretching and preparing my knee. When I returned, I had a very similar mindset to what I had the first time I attempted pole vaulting my freshman year. I just needed to get over my fear. I took my first vault and it all clicked and came back to me. It felt like home again. My knee sometimes gets stiff or achy due to the weather, but it didn’t have any issues that day. Once I was on the runway, I was only focused on pole vault. Freshman year, my personal best was clearing 8’6”. This year, I accomplished my personal best in pole vault post-surgery and cleared 8’1”. It feels great to be able to get back to the track after getting the BEAR Implant. Returning to pole vaulting felt like home to me.
Q. What are some of your future goals?
Olivia: Recently, I have been talking to the volleyball coach about playing next season. My goal is just staying healthy so I can continue to pole vault through high school. Then, if I were recruited for college, I would definitely consider it. My knee and my ACL both feel very strong.
Q: What is most notable about the BEAR Implant and why do you recommend it for patients like Olivia?
Dr. Meininger: The BEAR Implant’s innovative approach to soft tissue healing is the most notable. Routine ACL surgery has a documented track record for success, of course, but it is not perfect. Patients and surgeons are interested more and more in regenerative medicine techniques, and the BEAR Implant opens that opportunity for ACL injuries. Facilitating the body’s ability to heal itself is probably the most intriguing and interesting new development in ACL surgery in 20 years.
I think the BEAR Implant is a great alternative for young athletes like Olivia compared to routine ACL reconstructive surgery because it allows patients to heal their injury naturally and hopefully restores a more anatomical knee. Furthermore, the minimally invasive small tunnel diameters are unlikely to interrupt growth plates in the young, active populations. Lastly, while unfortunate, it remains true that young adolescent ACL patients have a high risk of repeat tears – almost 20% in some studies – and the BEAR Implant is a less invasive, lower profile ACL option that would allow any subsequent procedures or ACL operations to be more easily accomplished.
Learn more about the BEAR Implant and find a surgeon
The BEAR Implant from Miach Orthopaedics was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in December 2020. It is indicated for skeletally mature patients at least 14 years of age with a complete rupture of the ACL confirmed by MRI. Patients must have an ACL stump attached to the tibia to facilitate the restoration.
It is important to follow the BEAR Implant physical therapy program. Your surgeon can explain the program details.
Be sure to discuss your individual symptoms, diagnosis and treatment with your surgeon. The BEAR Implant has the same potential medical/surgical complications as other orthopedic surgical procedures, including ACL reconstruction. These include the risk of re-tear, infection, knee pain, meniscus injury and limited range of motion.
Visit www.miachortho.com for complete product information, including Instructions for Use.
ML-1104 Rev A 08/2023