World-Class Cyclist Recovers from Two Clavicle Fractures

Elizabeth HellerWith five national championships and four world championships in just one year, Elizabeth Heller isn't about to slow down.

Heller is a world-class cyclist, competing in everything from track cycling and road racing to time trials, short-course criteriums and the rough multi-terrain events known as cyclo-cross. In total, she holds more than 10 U.S. cycling titles, and, in 2014, brought home four gold medals and one team bronze medal from the World Masters Track Cycling Championships in Manchester, England.

“It’s the thrill of pushing myself and beating competitors that keeps me going,” she says with a laugh. “2014 was my best competitive year ever.”

Her latest achievements are all the more remarkable because Heller was just eight months out from what could have been a career-ending orthopedic injury.

“I was competing in a cyclo-cross event locally and I fell and broke my collarbone again, she says. “It was a mess.”

Heller, 57, also a full-time practicing attorney and partner with Goldenberg Heller Antognoli & Rowland, P.C. in Edwardsville, IL, has been cycling since the early 1980s. Shortly after graduating from Beloit College (WI), she began competing in triathalons. She quickly realized that she loved cycling and became focused on excelling on the race circuit, winning local, regional and national races over the next several years. For a decade (1988-1996), she was the Missouri State Road Race Champion. She also is a five-time Missouri State Mountain Bike Champion and a five-time winner of the Missouri State Criterium Race. She also earned four U.S.C.F. National Masters Championship titles in 1989 and 1990 and partnered with Greg Evangelatos, a blind cyclist from Los Angeles, to compete at the 1992 Paralympic Games in Barcelona, where they won a Silver Medal.

In 1997, Heller crashed while out on a mountain bike ride, breaking her collarbone for the first time. The long horizontal bone, officially called the clavicle, extends from the center of the ribcage outward to the shoulder. Heller turned to Rick Wright, MD, an orthopedic sports medicine specialist at Washington University School of Medicine, to fix the break and get her back to top racing form.

Ms. Heller sustained a displaced distal clavicle fracture which can be challenging to obtain healing,” explains Dr. Wright. “To enhance her functional return and chance of healing, I placed a plate and screws to put it back in place and hold it together. This was successful and she worked hard to rehabilitate and return to cycling.”

Heller continued to win multiple regional and national cycling championships and, in 1999, was crowned “Cyclist of the Decade” by the St. Louis Cycling Club.

In December 2012, while competing in a local cyclo-cross competition, Heller crashed again. “Not only did I break my clavicle again, I also broke the plate that held it all together,” she says.

She headed back to Dr. Wright, who immediately referred her to William Ricci, MD, chief of the orthopedic trauma service at Washington University and a nationally recognized specialist in treating fractures and post-trauma orthopedic reconstruction.

“Fracturing the clavicle around a previous plate is very unusual and presents unique challenges for treatment,” says Dr. Ricci. “The old plate had to be removed and the fracture properly aligned and secured with two plates specially designed for the clavicle. The post-operative rehabilitation is critical to a good outcome, especially for elite athletes. Too much rehab too early can lead to problems with fracture healing and too little rehab risks deconditioning of the athlete.”

“The biggest hurdle was to take the pressure on the shoulder while leaning forward to ride,” Heller explains. “It was a long, tough recovery, physically and mentally, but I was back on my bike in about six months, training first in my basement and then with friends outside.”

Eight months after her latest surgery, Heller was back on the podium, winning the gold medal in the Points Race at the USA Cycling Masters Track Championships in Indianapolis, Indiana, along with two silver medals and two bronze medals in other events. One year later, in August of 2014, Heller won all five championship events at the USA Cycling Masters Track Nationals in Seattle, WA. The World Championships in England quickly followed.

“I love to ride and compete,” Heller says. “I wouldn’t have been able to do all this without first Dr. Wright and then Dr. Ricci fixing my clavicle.

“Elizabeth was the model patient,” adds Dr. Ricci. “She followed the rehab protocol to the letter. This takes discipline, as elite athletes are uniquely motivated to return to their sport as fast as possible. Not pushing too much assured an excellent outcome and a return to world class form without any problems.”

Adds Heller, “I do feel lucky to live near one of the best orthopedic departments in the country.”

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