Delaney Willingham stepped to the mat, placed both hands on the barbell and prepared her body and mind to complete a lift she'd done hundreds of times before. But this time, as spectators of her high school weightlifting meet looked on, something went terribly wrong. After Delaney completed the first part of her lift, she suffered a serious injury. "I dislocated my right shoulder," she says.
After being taken to Mayo Clinic's Florida campus for evaluation, an MRI revealed the full extent of the damage. In addition to dislocating her shoulder, the imaging showed that Delaney had torn her labrum — the ring of cartilage around the rim of the shoulder socket that helps stabilize the joint.
Even though Delaney says the injury wasn't painful, it was frustrating — especially given all the hard work, training and personal sacrifice she'd invested in her senior year of competition. And she was concerned that the shoulder injury would derail her lifelong dream of lifting at collegiate and professional levels. "I was told there was chance I'd never be able to compete again," Delaney says. "That's what worried and frustrated me the most."
Her desire to fully recover from her injury motivated Delany to seek the advice of Cedric Ortiguera, M.D., a Mayo Clinic orthopedic surgeon. "He's so knowledgeable," Delaney says. "He walked me through exactly what had happened to my shoulder and exactly what he'd do to fix it. He outlined what surgery would entail and even showed me a complete video representation of how he'd repair my injury. It was very interesting and comforting for me to see that."
Encouraged by that discussion, Delaney opted to allow Dr. Ortiguera to do everything he'd said he would to surgically repair her injured right shoulder.
"Labral tears at her young age don't do very well when treated without surgery, so we performed an arthroscopic procedure on her shoulder to repair the damage," Dr. Ortiguera says. "This required placing multiple anchors into her bone to reattach her labrum to allow it to heal in its normal position."
"I feel great. I'm totally recovered and back to lifting without restriction. It's really cool."Delaney Willingham
Going into the procedure, Dr. Ortiguera says he and his surgical colleagues had three main goals. "Number one was to make sure her shoulder was stable and does not dislocate again," he says. "Number two was for her to live pain-free after the procedure. And number three was for her to be able to return to her desired lifestyle and activities."
Delany underwent the surgery in early 2018. Since then, her recovery has gone extremely well, and she's met all three of her care team's presurgery goals. "I feel great," she says. "I'm totally recovered and back to lifting without restriction. It's really cool."
Delaney is particularly pleased with the progress she's made because, at time of her injury, she feared she may never again compete in the sport she'd come to love. "Obviously when the injury happened, I was devastated because competitive weightlifting is what I love to do, and it's what I do with all of my free time," she says. "I had to sit out my senior year of high school because of the injury, which was really hard for me, but being able to compete again now is pretty incredible."
Not only is Delaney competing again, she's competing at a high level as she continues her education at the University of South Florida. "I'm on a new team in Tampa now called 'Keep Pulling,' and I'm training with them," she says. "I qualified for the 2019 National University Championships almost exactly one year after my surgery with Dr. Ortiguera. That was a big meet for me and a really cool experience."
To arrive where she is now, Delaney says she had to start from scratch after her injury. "I basically had to start over because weightlifting is such a technical sport," she says. "When you're away from it for as long as I was — six to seven months — it takes a lot to get back. Getting to where I am now has been really rewarding because my strength level is actually higher than it was before my surgery."
"I had high expectations going into my surgery. I held my care team to those expectations, and they delivered on all fronts."Delaney Willingham
That is music to Dr. Ortiguera's surgeon ears. "It's always nice to hear outcomes like that from our patients," he says. "I'm so glad Delaney's doing well and is back to doing what she loves."
Now that she is fully healed and fully recovered, Delaney says she hopes the best is yet to come. "The end goal for any weightlifter is the National Championships," she says. "I've already competed in Team USA's University Nationals, so my next goal is to compete in Junior Nationals. After that, I'd like to make it to Senior Nationals and be competitive there, as well."
But regardless of what her competitive future holds, Delaney's thankful to her care team for giving her the chance to return to her weightlifting career. "I've always known Mayo Clinic is consistently one of the best hospitals in the country. Because of that, I had high expectations going into my surgery. I held my care team to those expectations, and they delivered on all fronts," she says. "I'm really happy with everything Dr. Ortiguera and everyone else did for me because it obviously worked."