Future Olympic Gold

In an instant, a young athlete’s Olympic hopes were dashed. Or so thought undefeated Shadow Hills High School star wrestler Caitlin Cardenas. It was February 3, 2016, and the then-15-year-old was practicing with her 21-year-old brother (and coach) Sal Cardenas Jr. for a looming California Interscholastic Federation meet. “I had just hurt my shoulder, so he was trying to avoid it, and ended up rolling me through my [left] elbow,” Cardenas, now 17, recalls of that fateful day. “I felt something snap, and I freaked out.”

Caitlin in action on the mat.
But when an X-ray taken at a local urgent care clinic showed up negative for injury, Cardenas kept competing. Two months later — her performance impaired, her elbow pain snowballing — it was time for an MRI. “The MRI showed a complete tear of the ulnar collateral ligament,” says Board Certified Orthopedic Surgeon Patrick St. Pierre, MD, Chief of Sports Medicine, Eisenhower Desert Orthopedic Center. Had Cardenas been willing to permanently hang up her singlet, she could have gotten by without surgical intervention. “There’s no way she could compete, even at a low level, without having a strong elbow,” adds Dr. St. Pierre.

The blow Cardenas suffered is most commonly seen in baseball players. In the 1970s, with no treatment available, it was a career-ending injury. But in 1974, Los Angeles orthopedic surgeon Frank Jobe, MD, a Los Angeles Dodgers team physician, conceived of an operation to replace stricken pitcher Tommy John’s elbow ligament with a palmaris longus tendon from his forearm. Following a full recovery, John returned to the game, charting more than half of his pro wins post-surgery.

“I’m honored that Dr. Jobe felt I was worthy enough of having this surgery named after me,” says the retired major leaguer, a resident of La Quinta who recently became a friend and patient of Dr. St. Pierre. “I’ve had the opportunity to take care of several sports figures after they’ve retired to the desert,” says Dr. St. Pierre. “Meeting and taking care of Tommy John, who is not only a sports legend but also an icon in sports medicine, has been great. Being able to connect him to a young athlete like Caitlin after she’s had ‘his’ surgery has been wonderful.”

"What's incredible about Caitlin is that she went back to wrestling without protection after six months. It's one thing to throw a baseball, but wrestling somebody who's trying to twist your arm off is an entirely different ballgame."Patrick St. Pierre, MD
Cardenas’ Tommy John surgery took place in May 2016. Rather than take Cardenas’ forearm tendon, which may not have proved strong enough, or a tendon from her own knee, which could have left that part of her body compromised, Dr. St. Pierre used a donor’s knee tendon. Rest and recuperation followed. “It takes 12 to 16 weeks for a tendon to heal to the bone,” explains Dr. St. Pierre, one of the few surgeons to do ulnar collateral ligament reconstructions. “If we let somebody go back too quickly, they’re likely to stretch it out or tear it again, so we have to be cautious and go slowly with their recovery.”

Cardenas was in a sling for five weeks, which permitted the incision to heal and the swelling to lessen. She was then fitted with an elbow brace, which she wore for two months while working on range of motion, this time with two coaches: brother Sal Jr. and father Sal Sr. “They were very committed to do whatever they could to ensure proper healing and make her elbow recovery the best possible. This gives Caitlin the best chance of being able to compete at a high level, whether that’s college or the Olympics,” recalls Dr. St. Pierre. “A baseball pitcher usually takes a year to recover,” continues Dr. St. Pierre. “Somebody who plays first or second base may come back as early as Caitlin did, which is still really quick. What’s incredible about Caitlin is that she went back to wrestling without protection after six months. It’s one thing to throw a baseball, but wrestling somebody who’s trying to twist your arm off is an entirely different ballgame.”

“I’m very grateful for Dr. St. Pierre,” says Cardenas, who now lives in Corona, is a senior at Corona High School, and recently took second place at state championships before ranking 12th solo in the nation. And the 2020 Olympics? “It’s not unrealistic,” she says. “I believe anything’s possible with the right mindset and the right amount of training. But I think 2024 is a lot more in my view.”

To learn more about Eisenhower Desert Orthopedic Center, call 760.773.4545.