Alex Cullen: 'I had difficulty watching a kid have his knee drilled'

Think back to when you were 12 years old. Life was good. You went to school, had friends, didn’t have to work and you didn’t have to pay tax because that was grown up stuff.

You also enjoyed mucking around with your friends playing hopscotch or touch football. Perhaps you grazed your knee and mum put a band-aid on it because that’s what mums do.

You also played a game of netball or soccer or footy on the weekend and come Monday morning, you were back at school, ready to do it all again.

Oh, how times have changed.

The sporting landscape for children these days is busier, sorry, crazier than ever putting children at serious risk of serious injury.

Children are training for and playing more of their favourite sports every weekend of the year and the workload on still-growing muscles and joints is staggering.

The stats are genuinely scary. Since 2001, the number of Australian children having knee reconstructions has more than tripled.

At the Mater hospital in Sydney, knee surgeons will perform knee reconstructions on about 150 kids per year and that’s just one hospital in one capital city.

That’s where we met young Campbell Rubie. Campbell is a talented rugby league player from Forbes in country New South Wales.

He was running the ball at the try line in a game in April this year when three players tackled him and all of a sudden there was that dreaded loud crack.

Alex Cullen and Campbell Rubie. Photo: Alex Cullen

It’s the sound that no sportsperson wants to hear. And then the pain and then the three letters that roll off the tongue but threaten to end careers - ACL.

A snapped, ruptured, stretched, detached, busted, anterior cruciate ligament. I should also mention that Campbell is 12. Too young to be suffering an injury normally reserved for those more than twice his age.

Campbell then had a decision to make. See if it would heal itself (which it normally doesn’t) or have a knee reconstruction.

A knee reconstruction for a child not yet in his teens is a prospect no child should have to face but here was Campbell who wanted more than anything to get back on the paddock.

Campbell needed a new ACL to hold his knee together. Normally, the knee surgeon would take a ligament from Campbell’s hamstring but he’s too young and it probably wouldn’t hold.

Remember, he’s a kid.

So, Campbell’s dad agreed to donate his hamstring to be grafted into his son’s knee in an operation that would last about 2 hours.

I’ll admit right here that I had great difficulty in witnessing a 12-year-old kid have his knee hammered and drilled and knocked back into shape. But this is normal now and I later learnt that knee surgeons are performing the same operation on kids as young as eight.

So why are these kids getting seriously injured?

Doctor Chris Vertullo explained to me that we here in Australia are playing multi-directional sports all year round and that inevitably results in lower limb injury.

Think football, basketball and netball and the endless pivoting, jumping and wrestling that puts young players at risk of hurting themselves.

A lot of kids are playing two or more of those sports on any given weekend and the risk doubles and triples for kids like Nikita Citino.

Nikita, 16, trains six times a week and plays two games of basketball and then another game of football every weekend. It used to be three games of basketball until she ruptured her ACL playing for her team in suburban Melbourne.

Nikita is a talented young sportsperson, fiercely determined and told me that sport is life.

So when she pivoted sharply in the dying minutes of a basketball final and twisted her knee, life stopped momentarily.

At 14, Nikita went under the knife to put her knee back together again. She’s back playing now but is cautious and doesn’t allow herself to think about hurting her knee again.

Nikita was devastated when she suffered an ACL injury at age 14.

I asked Nikita why she got injured and her reply was playing too much sport.

It’s a tough decision for parents most of whom love seeing their kids out getting fit instead of sitting in front a computer.

The challenge now is judging when is too much sport, too much sport?

Doctor Vertullo stressed to me that these injuries are preventable. A simple 15-20 minute stretching and agility program can help reduce the risk dramatically and parents can find those programs here:

In this instance, prevention is so much better than cure because once a child ruptures their ACL, or has a shoulder reconstruction, or an ankle operation they’ll never be the same again and the risk of osteoporosis later in life greatly increases.

No one wants a knee replacement in their 30s and 40s but sadly, that’s a prospect a lot of these kids are facing.