All Richie Suarez wanted to do was play baseball.
From Little League to his high school baseball program in southern New Jersey, Richie grew into a skilled athlete and pitcher – and colleges noticed. In 2010 he was a few days away from starting his freshman year at Rowan University. Richie was looking forward to studying math and taking the mound as a Scarlet Knight.
But instead, life threw him a major curveball.
August 27, 2010: Age 18
“I was diagnosed with leukemia,” recalls Richie as soon as the date is mentioned.
He began treatment at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). “I was doing really poorly,” he recalls. “One day, I got out of bed and was having major trouble walking. My legs were killing me.
An MRI revealed that Richie was developing avascular necrosis (AVN), a condition that destroys the bones that make up the major joints.
March to December 2011: Age 19
Richie had signs of AVN in his thighs and shins. The medications Richie was on to treat his leukemia had damaged the circulation in his bones, causing them to become soft on the surface.
In December, right before Christmas, he found out it had spread to his hips and knees.
“I knew AVN was a possibility from the start. It was one of the potential side effects from the high dose of steroids I was on,” Richie says. “But the initial blow of being told I had AVN was the hardest part.”
August 2012: Age 20
Richie underwent a surgical procedure at CHOP called bone decompression on his left knee and hip.
Bone decompression—or core decompression—involves drilling holes into the bone to relieve pressure and allow space for new blood vessels to grow through. This prevents the joint from collapsing.
The surgery went well, but there was bad news: His left hip was destroyed and his right hip was nearly as bad.
“Your hip is like a marshmallow,” the doctor said. “I can’t even cut into it. It would just fall apart.”
Richie’s team at CHOP suggested a hip replacement might be the best option. They referred him to Eric Hume, MD, an orthopaedic surgeon specializing in joint replacement at Penn Orthopaedics.
Richie met with Dr. Hume, and after discussing his options, he scheduled a bilateral hip replacement.
December 14, 2012: Age 20
Luckily, the disease was largely confined to the ball of the hip joint, making the surgery a little more straight forward.
In the past, the replacement process involved bone cement, whereas now a more durable, cementless implant is available.
“The cementless implant has an almost coral-like rough texture on the surface. And if you a pick a material like titanium for support, the bone will actually grow into all of the little nooks and crannies rough ‘coral-like’ titanium surface,” says Dr. Hume.
“Although it doesn’t bond directly to the surface of the metal, it still gives you a stable implant,” he adds. “And because that bone is healthy and alive, that stable implant is maintained in the body over long time periods.”
After the surgery, Dr. Hume encouraged Richie to focus on getting back to school and doing basic day-to-day activities.
But Richie was already looking ahead. His goal was to get back on the field.
April 2013: Age 21
In April 2013, Richie threw his first pitch with his dad. “I remember being discouraged at first,” he says. “The way I used to throw didn’t really work as well anymore.”
Richie realized that getting used to his new hips would take time. “It took a while before I felt like I could trust them. But I learned to adapt,” he says.
He started off with physical therapy in a pool for the low impact resistance.
By the fall of 2013, Richie was ready to try out for his college’s baseball team. He remembers telling the coach, “I’m going to try out because I want to. But I have to make the team because I earned it. I don’t want to be a charity case.”
After months of physical therapy, practice and patience, Richie again took the mound. His hard work paid off: He made the team.
September 2015: Age 23
While he isn’t back to throwing 88 mile per hour fastballs, Richie says, “I clocked once at 87 this past year. Usually, I’m around 84 or 85. That’s still much harder than I thought I was going to be throwing.”
He knows there is a chance he’ll need a second set of hip replacements down the line, but he’s okay with that.
Today Richie has goals that extend beyond the pitcher’s mound. He plans to become a pediatric oncologist or an orthopaedic surgeon.
“It would be silly for me not to go into one of those,” he says. “I feel like that’s where I can help the most because of my experiences.”
“A lot of times, doctors end up looking like the bad guys because they have to give the bad news,” he says. “But they have your best interests at heart.. The only reason I am where I am now is because of them.”
The Penn Musculoskeletal Center
The Penn Musculoskeletal Center is a team of doctors, nurses and physical therapists who take a whole-body approach to diagnosing and treating joint pain. These experts work together as a seamless unit to provide a wide range of treatments, not just surgery, and help you return to an active, pain-free lifestyle.