Joan Andrews wins three medals in the Senior Games. Photo courtesy of National Senior Games Association

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Age is Nothing but a Number for Senior Games Competitor

Nothing could stop Joan Andrews from competing in the National Senior Games, not even fracturing her neck just four months before the competition.

Joan Andrews, 97, is different from most people her age. Her personal motto is “keep going, keep moving.” This is perhaps most evident in her wide-ranging interests. Joan – all while raising five children along with her husband, the late Fletcher Andrews – has been a school teacher, a librarian and a band director (which she prepared for by first learning all the instruments her students would play). She’s explored stained-glass making, crocheting, choir singing, guitar playing and basketball.

The latest additions to her impressively long list? Cornhole and running. And she’s been competing at the very highest levels among her peers in both sports, including at the National Senior Games (also known as the Senior Olympics). This multi-sport competition for seniors that occurs in the US every two years, is the event for Joan. She placed in the 2015 Senior Games and hoped to do the same in 2017.

Injured Four Months Before Games

A wrench was thrown in Joan’s plans when, just four months before she was set to compete in running and cornhole events, she tripped and fell. The fall resulted in a fracture to her C2 vertebrae in her cervical spine, which is located in the upper region of the neck.

When the average elderly patient endures a C2 fracture (a common injury in that age group), their independence is usually impacted in a major way; such as someone needing to transition from living independently to an assisted-living facility.

This sort of outcome was not an option for Joan, who was still determined to recover and compete at the National Senior Games.

Treatment According to Lifestyle, Not Just Age

Joshua C. Patt, MD, Joan’s orthopedic surgeon at Atrium Health (formerly Carolinas HealthCare System), said his first instinct was to treat Joan very conservatively, but his opinion soon changed after he got to know her.

“On paper, she’s 97, but she acts more like an 80-year-old,” says Dr. Patt. “I considered going with the cervical (neck) collar and tried it on her, but she was not a fan. In fact, she said something along the lines of the collar being a punishment worse than death.” 

In addition to Joan’s lack of enthusiasm, Dr. Patt knew there was no guarantee her neck would heal on its own with the collar; and while surgery carried greater risk, Dr. Patt discussed the options with Joan and her children – ultimately, they all agreed surgery was the way to go.

“A spinal injury in a 97-year-old athlete was a unique mix to be sure,” recalls Dr. Patt. “Ultimately, the decision has to be based on the person not only their age. I knew I had to put on my sports medicine hat and get her back to her competition.”

Dr. Patt successfully performed C1-C2 spinal fusion surgery on Joan, fusing the top two vertebrae of her spine. This required the placement of four titanium screws and two titanium rods to stabilize the fracture while it healed.

From Recovery to Medals

After surgery, Joan worked hard to regain her strength at in-patient rehab and physical therapy. And within four weeks, she was healed enough to resume training.

In June 2017, Joan competed at the National Senior Games in Birmingham, AL, and walked away with three medals, receiving second place for cornhole, third place for the 50-meter race and second place for the 100-meter race.

“It’s very satisfying to see a patient thrive within the first four months of a difficult operation,” shares Dr. Patt. “Joan knew she could get back to her previous level of activity, and I was so proud to see her do just that.”

There’s no telling what Joan will do next, but competing in the 2019 National Senior Games will surely be on the agenda.

 

Learn more about the exceptional orthopedic care offered at Atrium Health.

Photo courtesy of National Senior Games Association.


This sort of outcome was not an option for Joan, who was still determined to recover and compete at the National Senior Games.
This sort of outcome was not an option for Joan, who was still determined to recover and compete at the National Senior Games.
This sort of outcome was not an option for Joan, who was still determined to recover and compete at the National Senior Games.