‘My mission field’: Surgeon, clinic team help player

Searcy High School senior Demaceo Whittier has recovered from a serious knee injury, thanks to the help of Unity Health orthopaedic surgeon Dr. Justin Franz.

by Taryn Brown

Coming back from a sports injury can be intimidating. There is the fear of reinjury, ability to come back and uncertainty of regaining skill levels. Searcy High School senior Demaceo Whittier had all those thoughts during the second round of playoffs for the Searcy Lions football team in 2018. 

Whittier, a defensive end, was playing a great game. Around the third quarter, he made a sack and then was hit on the side of his knee by a player from the opposing team. At first, he thought he hyperextended his knee because he had never experienced pain like that, but he fell back down when he tried to stand.

Unity Health orthopaedic surgeon Dr. Justin Franz has been taking care of Searcy High School teams and athletes since 2013. He was on the sidelines that night and knew immediately that Whittier had a significant knee injury. Franz, Searcy High School Athletic Trainer Cody Stubblefield, Whittier’s mother Patricia Landon and his godparents, Trace and Kayla Madden, made their way to the locker room to discuss the seriousness of the injury and next steps.

“I examined him and could tell he had a completely ruptured Grade 3 Medical Collateral Ligament (MCL) sprain, which is the ligament on the inside part of the knee that provides stability to the knee and allows you to cut and pivot,” Franz said. 

Ultimately, Franz felt Whittier’s injury was significant enough that his ligament needed to be repaired. 

“It was comforting to have Dr. Franz on the sidelines because he was able to give us an idea of what was going on and we had some peace of mind,” Trace said. “Having Dr. Franz be there and having Unity Health here was very helpful in Demaceo’s surgery and recovery. He received a diagnosis and treatment quickly and his surgery and recovery did not have to be stretched out.”

Franz and his team performed an open repair of the MCL and reinforced the ligament, making it essentially stronger than before it was torn. 

Whittier is also a state champion in wrestling and had a goal of being back for that season. The expected recovery time for his injury was initially 12 weeks, but he pushed himself and came back in eight weeks, just in time for a major wrestling tournament. 

Franz said he was impressed by Whitter even before his injury. He describes him as not only an amazing athlete, but also an amazing young man with a fun-loving spirit. Because of the hard work he put into recovering and doing his part, he was able to come back in a shorter amount of time.

“I think the old school mentality of when you are injured you just have to play through the pain; no pain no gain, is an antiquated view of how we deal with patients,” Franz said. “Today’s outlook should be if you do not feel 100 percent, then you are not helping yourself. You are putting yourself and your teammates in danger or at risk. When you have an injury, tell someone about it, come in, be evaluated and make sure everything is OK before you step back on the field.”

After his comeback, Whittier was able to compete with his wrestling team. He won conference and the team went on to take home the state title. He placed second in his weight division. 

Franz said at Unity Health’s Orthopaedic and Spine Center they take a team approach to taking care of patients. They divide and conquer. They want patients to have early and easy access to orthopaedic care. 

“All athletes know how important teamwork is, and we, as former athletes taking care of these kids, take the same approach. We have everyone from the school administration, athletic trainers, parents and PAs involved,” Franz said.

Trace said Franz stayed in touch with him after Whittier’s surgery to see how he was doing overall and wanted videos of his wrestling matches so he could evaluate how he was doing on his knee. 

“The fact that he did that when he did not have to was so helpful and encouraging,” Trace said.

“For me, this is my calling, this is my mission field,” Franz said. “This is how I seek to help make the world, even a small corner of it, a better place. I seek to renew people’s bodies and get them back to the quality of life they expect and hope for.”

Whittier is going into his senior year and he said he feels more mentally prepared and ready to have a great year.

“My injury and recovery changed how I approach things now,” Whitter said. “I was scared to re-injure my knee when I first got back, but Dr. Franz told me my knee is stronger than it used to be and as I realized that, I stopped holding back and went all out. I am not hesitant to push myself anymore.”

Whittier said a great friendship between himself and Franz has formed from his injury and he keeps in touch with some of the orthopaedic team who treated him. Whitter plans on going to college after graduation to further his education. Franz said he is excited to watch him play and continue following his career in the future.