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Patient Stories

Ironman's Steel Will Speeds Recovery

Triathlete Makes Triumphant Return After Broken Heel

Paul Zegar makes his living as an electrician, and lives his passion as a triathlete and Ironman competitor. So when he fell from a 15-foot ladder, landed on his feet on a concrete floor, and sustained a calcaneus (heel) fracture and a broken wrist, the future looked uncertain, both for his 40-plus-hours-a-week job and his racing career.

“I felt like my whole foot had collapsed. I was in extreme pain,” Paul says. He was stabilized at nearby Palos Hospital in Palos Heights, Illinois, and then was referred to Jeffrey A. Senall, MD, orthopaedic surgeon and foot and ankle specialist at Northwestern Medicine Orthopaedics, for his expertise in treating this injury. Dr. Senall repaired Paul’s heel with 13 screws, a plate and a fusion of the subtalar joint, a joint located just below the ankle.

“Paul’s was one of the more severe types of this kind of injury, which could lead to arthritis and chronic pain. It could have been career-ending for someone in the trades,” Dr. Senall says. “We reconstructed his heel and fused the subtalar joint so he wouldn’t require additional surgery in the future for arthritis. He needed to be back at work as soon as possible. And as a triathlete, he had to be able to exercise.”

This injury, as well as other complex injuries and orthopaedic conditions, are a specialty of Regional Medical Group Orthopaedics. The practice also has extensive experience treating endurance sports athletes, and many of its physicians are athletes themselves. Many of the group’s physicians are on the medical staff of Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital, which is ranked No. 32 nationwide for orthopaedic care by U.S. News & World Report’s “America’s Best Hospitals, 2018 – 2019.”

Empathy for a Long Road

After his surgery, the 47-year-old triathlete could not put any weight on his foot for 16 weeks. He was told it was doubtful he would race again, a hard message to hear. “When you go from going 100 miles an hour to needing a scooter to go to the bathroom, there’s a lot of mental pain,” Paul says. “I had anxiety attacks … it was the toughest time of my life.”

Fortunately, Paul’s surgeon had particular empathy for his situation. “Dr. Senall is a triathlete too, and he knew what I was feeling,” he says. “He knew I was strong, and told me if I hadn’t been in the shape I was in, my injuries would have been a lot worse.”

Dr. Senall adds, “I always kept in mind that Paul needed to be able to train again. Fusion was better for him as an athlete with his type of fracture. What we do here is a balance between the sports medicine world and taking the time to heal. It’s knowing what can be done safely, and when. Cross-training was incorporated early in his recovery so that he would not lose too much of his fitness.”

Back on the Triathlon Track

Paul went through more than a year of physical therapy and gradual conditioning. Although still wearing a walking boot, he was able to walk independently again seven months after his injury, and he went back to work three months after that. He returned to his triathlon training a year after his fall and completed the Louisville (Kentucky) Ironman competition nine months later.

“That was the best day of my life after the births of my three kids,” Paul says. Not only did he make it to the finish line, but he beat his previous time by 40 minutes. “Nothing was going to stop me, and my foot held up the whole time.” He plans to do several half marathons in the months ahead with a goal to qualify for the next Boston Marathon.

“Many doctors might say ‘You’ll never run again, choose a different sport.’ But I never really do that,” Dr. Senall says. “I say, ‘This will be difficult,’ but Paul did great. He’s a very determined, motivated guy. It also shows you that when patients take ownership of their recovery, they do very well.”

Northwestern Medicine Regional Medical Group Orthopaedics

Jeffrey A. Senall, MD
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