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Fractured Heels

Ken Panco thumbs up

Ken has always lived a very active lifestyle and been in pristine health. Growing up, he played soccer, baseball, football and ice hockey. By his freshman year of high school, he knew ice hockey was the sport he’d pursue in college and began practicing regularly. Ken also picked-up a running routine, logging an average of 12 to 15 miles a week and boasting an impressive mile time of six minutes at his prime. Through his focus, training and hard work, his dream of becoming a collegiate ice hockey player came true.

After a career in college hockey, Ken maintained an active, fitness-focused lifestyle. At the age of 33, Ken was in the best shape of his life. That all changed the day he fell off his roof.

Ken did everything he could to cushion the impact as he fell, knowing all the while injury would be unavoidable. Left unconscious from pain and trauma, Ken woke up and attempted to crawl back inside to seek treatment.

Rushed to the ICU

The paramedics arrived shortly after Ken’s call. He was brought to a local hospital, experiencing the worst pain of his life throughout the ride. “My toes felt like they were in a campfire and my ankles felt like they had a boa constrictor wrapped around them squeezing them tightly,” Ken recalls.

Once at the hospital, he received a series of full-body X-Rays that revealed two fractured heels and—to his surprise—two fractured vertebrae. In his left heel, Ken had more than three fracture lines with the bones severely splintered. His right ankle did not suffer any cartilage damage, but had two to three fracture lines with several severely splintered bones.

Ken spent a total of three days and two nights in the ICU. Once discharged, he met with an orthopaedic surgeon, who told Ken that he may never walk again and would have to use opioids to treat his severe pain. Depression set in as he feared the pain and anxiety that came with this diagnosis.

A New Outlook

Ken told his friends about his bleak diagnosis. Luckily for him, one of his friends worked in the medical device industry and recommended Ken see Dr. Samir Mehta, the Chief of Orthopaedic Trauma at Penn Medicine.

“Dr. Mehta saw me on a day he does not typically see patients and spent as much time with me as I needed,” Ken recalls, “I knew almost immediately Dr. Mehta was all I ever wanted in a surgeon. He was brutally honest with me, but also confident that I was operable and did not require more of a devastating surgery than previously thought.” To prepare for the series of surgeries recovery would require, Ken was given strict orders to keep his feet elevated and iced, avoid moving his ankles and eat 4,000 calories a day—a diet that aids the healing of traumatic injuries.

After thorough preparation, operation day came. “In the operating room, it was as bad as I expected. I had a plan in terms of how I was going to fix it – like putting a puzzle together and starting with the corner pieces and working my way in. There were a lot of pieces. During the surgery, all I could think about was how I had to get this perfect to give this guy a fighting chance,” Dr. Mehta recalls.

A True Sport

A few weeks later, Ken began his physical therapy journey, making great gains with each session. In a matter of months, he could bear weight on his heels while submerged in a pool—a good sign of recovery. Since Ken had not used his legs for the past 3 months, Dr. Mehta warned Ken that his brain would forget he had heels. Dr. Mehta’s warning proved true, leading Ken to take some stumbles at first.

As physical therapy progressed, Ken returned to Dr. Mehta’s office hoping to be cleared to walk. Impressive X-ray results helped this hope be realized: Ken could bear weight on both heels again—without the aid of a pool.

And he wasted no time! “Thankfully, he prepped me for this but I did not care what it was going to feel like, I just needed to keep moving forward,” Ken explains. Although his heals couldn’t bear full weight and walking was painful, he says, “Regardless, I walked the entire way back to our car in a lot of pain but loved every second of it.”

Back on His Feet

ken panco dr. mehta trauma patient

Six weeks later, Ken was given the green light to go back to an activity he always enjoyed prior to his injury: running. Although Ken may not be running as much as he used to, he still views his injury with a positive mindset and considers it a unique learning experience. “The mental and physical challenge of recovery and breaking down walls and plateaus has resulted in a new, positive, better and even more driven me.” Ken explains, “My work ethic, drive and passion without question helped in my physical recovery. I’ve always been an independent person and hate being reliant on anyone for anything, but I can’t discount the importance the support of family, friends and medical staff had in my recovery.

Ken has documented his journey to help others in a similar situation. To read more about Ken’s journeys, visit his website, “My Fractured Heels.

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