With physical therapy, she could get back to setting the scene

photo by: Earl Richardson/LMH Health

Rana Esfandiary, assistant professor of design and technology in KU’s theater and dance department, underwent surgery and physical therapy after tearing her ACL.

Designing a set for a theater production requires creativity, passion and attention to detail, and can also be quite a challenge. Just ask Rana Esfandiary, assistant professor of design and technology in the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of Kansas.

“I look at designing a set as a math problem I have to solve,” she said. “Putting the pieces together the right way and filling the stage so that it complements the actors — it’s something where I find great joy. I love to be up on my feet and moving around, whether I’m creating or teaching.”

Esfandiary incorporates movement into more than just her work. One of the things she loves most is soccer. Since Esfandiary moved to Lawrence in 2010, playing in the Lawrence Adult Soccer League has been part of her identity.

She acknowledges that she can be stubborn on the field. When she extended her leg on defense and her knee moved in an odd way, Esfandiary was ready to shake it off and continue to play.

“It was like my knee went in and out, and it wasn’t a pleasant feeling,” she said. “I initially thought I’d just walk it out, change my cleats and go back in. That didn’t happen. The pain was just too much.”

Despite coming out of the game due to the pain, Esfandiary didn’t think she was hurt too badly since she’s such an active person.

She thought that her knee would be fine with a little ice and elevation. After two weeks, the inflammation and pain hadn’t subsided, and she made an appointment with Dr. Kirk McCullough, an orthopedic surgeon at the Kansas City Orthopaedic Institute.

“I’ve worked with Dr. McCullough for a few years due to a long list of small injuries, so when I’d gone a couple of weeks without improving, I returned to him to see what was going on,” she said. “I honestly thought it would just be something minor, but the moment I stood up and explained what happened, he was pretty sure that I’d torn my ACL.”

The anterior cruciate ligament, more commonly known as the ACL, is a ligament located in the center of the knee that connects the femur (thighbone) to the tibia (shinbone) and controls movements of the tibia. The ACL stabilizes the knee and is used in everyday activity, especially in physical activities such as sports that require frequent and sudden deceleration. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ACL injuries affect as many as 250,000 Americans each year. 

McCullough recommended surgery. He told Esfandiary that her job was to be able to straighten her leg by that date, and she worked diligently to ensure that she could. The morning of the procedure, July 8, McCullough entered the room and asked if she had any concerns before they started.

“I told him that I’d read about people struggling to get their leg back to normal after surgery. I wanted to be able to play tennis and soccer again,” she said. “Dr. McCullough told me about Dan, an excellent physical therapist that I should work with after surgery. I made an appointment and saw him about 10 days later.”

Hard work pays off

The physical therapist McCullough recommended was Dan Lorenz, director of sports medicine at LMH Health. He’s also the only fellowship-trained physical therapist in sports physical therapy in Lawrence and the Kansas City metro. During their first meeting, Lorenz learned about Esfandiary’s goals to play competitive sports again.

“Rana was very driven and an easy type of patient to work with. She didn’t require any external motivation and had an internal compass to get back to the level she’d previously been,” he said. “Our goals were to get motion and strength back. While she started at the beginning like everyone else, we set higher expectations to achieve things that others might not.”

To get Esfandiary back to the level of strength and ability she’d had before surgery, Lorenz prescribed an aggressive workload. Incorporating load and strength training to improve quad and hamstring strength and activities to increase her ability to run and change direction were all featured prominently in Esfandiary’s rehab.

“It’s so funny because I was pretty active in theater and I used to go to the gym all the time. I thought I could do anything that Dan would throw at me,” she laughed. “But I’d stayed away from strength training at the gym and wasn’t someone who’d worked with weights. It was intimidating and new to me.”

Lorenz said that Esfandiary put in time and effort and worked hard over 14 months. He outlined a home program and she followed it to the letter. When Lorenz would test her progress, sometimes Esfandiary would have a big jump from her previous testing and the next time it might not be as great. The important thing was that she never gave up.

“Patients that have chronic trouble take it upon themselves to do their own thing, stop structured progression or don’t take our advice as far as increasing their activity level,” Lorenz said. “It’s so important to listen to your team so you don’t end up stalling out or hurting yourself again. Rana did everything we asked her to do. She was patient, stayed the course and listened to us.”

Now, Esfandiary is back on the stage, creating backdrops and setting the scene for those who see the productions she works on. She’s also made it back onto the pitch, and her teammates joke that they aren’t sure she was ever hurt in the first place.

“I hear how much lighter and faster I’ve become when I’m playing soccer and tennis. I’m able to change direction better and my balance has improved,” she said. “They’ll tease me and say, ‘You lied about the whole surgery thing. You’re so good!’ And then I’ll show them my scar and just smile.”

Esfandiary recommends working with Lorenz to friends, colleagues and teammates and anyone who needs physical therapy. She teases that she forced her husband to see him following a shoulder injury due to tennis.

“Dan gave me a really clear image of what to expect and how I would make progress,” Esfandiary said. “I’m so thankful to Dr. McCullough and to Dan because I’m walking and working again. They helped me get back to being an active person.”

— Autumn Bishop is the marketing manager and content strategist at LMH Health.


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