Nicholas Oeltjen is no stranger to shoulder pain. The 24-year-old endured one shoulder injury and a subsequent surgery several years ago. So when he heard a pop and a crunch while lifting weights one afternoon in June 2017, he immediately knew something was wrong.
Feeling as if history was repeating itself, Nicholas found himself scheduled for a consultation with Michael R. Johnson, M.D. — the orthopedic surgeon at Mayo Clinic Health System in Red Wing, Minnesota, who performed his first shoulder surgery. This time, however, Nicholas' injury proved to be a bit more complex.
An MRI revealed a labral tear of the shoulder — the cartilage in Nicholas' shoulder joint was being pulled away from the socket and no longer was able to hold the ball of the joint in place. Dr. Johnson referred Nicholas to his colleague Gregory Erickson, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon at Mayo Clinic Health System in Red Wing who specializes in sports medicine.
Dr. Erickson recommended Nicholas have surgery to help repair the tear. Although the injury was painful and debilitating, Nicholas decided to wait with the surgery until mid-December, so he could complete his semester of student teaching and graduate from college. As a middle and high school physical education teacher in training, Nicholas found the limited use of his shoulder to be restricting.
"I wasn't able to fully use my right arm, so demonstrating any sort of movement that required me to use my arm, such as shooting a basketball or spiking a volleyball, was extremely difficult and painful," Nicholas says.
When the date of his surgery finally rolled around, Nicholas was more excited than nervous to get the procedure done and start the healing process. And while the surgery was a success, it turned out to be one of the more difficult operations Dr. Erickson had performed.
"The extent of the tear was greater than I had anticipated, causing me to have to drill directly into the bone and to use more sutures to hold the torn cartilage in place," Dr. Erickson says. "This also meant that the healing process would take longer, and Nicholas would have to work that much harder in physical therapy to restore function. But knowing Nicholas, I knew he would have the drive to do it."
Nicholas was discharged from the hospital several hours after the surgery, and he was able to stop taking all pain medications within three days.
"My shoulder was tight, but otherwise, I didn't experience any real pain or discomfort," he says. "My surgery was on a Thursday. By Sunday, I had my energy back and was ready for physical therapy to start the next day."
Nicholas underwent months of rehabilitation as he worked to strengthen his shoulder muscles. In June 2018, he finally threw a ball for the first time since his injury.
"I hadn't thrown that far or that hard in years," Nicholas says. "And it really felt great."
Adding to his happiness, Nicholas completed his physical therapy program just in time to swing his new bride around the dance floor at their wedding. Today, Nicholas is back to doing what he enjoys and is grateful to his care team for helping him get there.
"Dr. Erickson is remarkable. He not only is knowledgeable in terms of medicine, but he also had the ability to break down the process in a way that was easy for me to understand," he says. "I'm forever grateful to Dr. Erickson for helping fulfill my dreams of becoming a teacher and coach."
Note: A version of this story previously was published in Hometown Health.