March 17, 2013

For Rachele Burns, a point of no return

Rachele Burns, who played at Gorham High and UMaine, came back from four knee surgeries, and while she might wonder what might have been, nobody can question her determination.

By Mike Lowe
Staff Writer

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Her playing career over after multiple knee injuries, Rachele Burns spent this season as a student assistant for the Black Bears.

Courtesy of the University of Maine

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Burns plays for Gorham High in a 1-0 win over Bangor for the Class A soccer state title in 2005.

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Surgery followed, and she came back the next fall to play soccer for the Rams, who were the defending state champs. But the knee kept swelling during the season. Then, in the Western Class A quarterfinals, she went up for a header. When she came down, she knew the knee was damaged again.

She convinced everyone to let her play out the rest of the soccer season, as long as she didn't play basketball. She had surgery in December.

Burns called Blodgett, explaining the situation. The Black Bears certainly could have voided the scholarship offer. Blodgett didn't.

"College athletics is a business," said Blodgett. "But there's also a human element to it. We had invested a lot in her. She's a Maine kid whose impact could be greater (than a player from elsewhere). We wanted to take a chance."

For that, Burns said, "I was very fortunate."

Blodgett knew that Burns wouldn't be the explosive player she was in high school after two surgeries. "But I loved the fact that she was such a competitor," said Blodgett.


But Burns' willpower couldn't keep her healthy. In her freshman year at Maine, after another nine months of rehabilitation, her knee gave out again.

She had injured her right hip in a practice and her leg was dragging. Four minutes into the annual Blue-White scrimmage, "I went to do an inside-out move on Brittany Williams," said Burns. "I remember that clearly. My knee went out. I came to the bench and explained to the trainers. They said they would check it out at the half.

"Lo and behold again."

After having the first two surgeries performed by Dr. Doug Brown in Portland, Burns was referred to Dr. Thomas Gill in Boston, the medical director of the New England Patriots and team doctor for the Boston Bruins.

Gill, who has performed knee surgery on such athletes as New England quarterback Tom Brady and former Patriots receiver Wes Welker, as well as soccer star Kristine Lilly, said female athletes are predisposed to suffering multiple ACL tears for several reasons. Among the factors are the physiology of the knee and a lower level of testosterone, which helps build muscle and bone mass. But he had never treated someone for three surgeries on the same knee.

Instead of simply repairing the ACL again, he reconstructed Burns' knee.

"Rachele was fortunate to have an outstanding initial surgeon," he said. "But we had to start from scratch. We talked and decided, rather than make it as good as we can with a third ACL surgery, let's make it as close as we can to a primary surgery."

It was a longer surgery, but it was also better for Burns and her rehabilitation.

"She took it like everything else," said Gill. "She did everything we asked. She was incredibly dedicated to getting better."

Burns' right knee felt great when she returned to Orono for her sophomore season. The Black Bears were down in Florida when her left knee buckled during a practice.

"Same thing," said Burns, matter-of-factly. "Only difference is that that one was the only one that really hurt."

Again she went to Gill for the surgery -- his first question to her when she called was regarding which knee was injured -- and again he was amazed by her attitude.

"With Rachele, it was all just sheer guts and sheer will," he said. "It was, 'Let's fix this, I want to get back.' "

But following the season, Blodgett and Burns had a conversation about whether Burns should continue to play.

"My greatest concern was, will she be able to walk when she's 40?" said Blodgett. "You have to keep things in perspective."

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Burns drives to the basket as Gorham plays in the Western Class A tourney in 2007.

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In April 2008, Burns was rehabbing from a knee injury suffered in basketball season.


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