Three Docs Say Knee Replacement, One says PRP Injections

Avid athlete JJ Connor’s life changed dramatically when a knee accident posed tough decisions, but Dr. Matthew Pecci gave her an option no other physician offered.

Athletic woman with knee pain

Sometimes the best choices that we make in life are gambles. We put our faith in a tough decision and hope it will work out for the best. When it comes to our health and our bodies, sometimes we face our fear and trust our instincts.

These realities are the crux of Jillian Jesse Connor’s story and the theme of her personal journey in overcoming a life-changing knee injury.

In May of 2014, life was good for Jillian Jesse, affectionately known as JJ to her friends and family. At age 59, JJ was in the best shape of her life, dedicating 12 to 16 hours a week to fitness activities including strength training, surfing and speed skating.

Recently relocated to the Bay Area for a new job, everything was going well for JJ until one fateful morning. After a grueling two-hour workout, JJ slipped on the floor in the ladies’ locker room at her gym, resulting in a crash landing directly on her knee. Although her knee was throbbing in pain, in true athlete fashion JJ attempted to “walk it off.” Within several hours, JJ’s left knee had swollen to the size of a large grapefruit and she was in excruciating pain.

Unable to walk during work the next day, JJ sought emergency care. She was told that her injury was severe and was referred on an emergency basis to Muir Orthopaedic Specialists (MOS) in Walnut Creek.

Beyond repair, or not?

As fate would have it, Dr. Matthew Pecci was the physician on duty the day that JJ came in and there couldn’t have been a better doctor-patient match. Dr. Pecci himself had only recently relocated to the Bay Area from Boston, where he was the director of Boston University’s Sports Medicine program, coordinating and caring for the university’s student-athletes, and where he founded the university’s Primary Care Sports Medicine fellowship. Fortunately for JJ, Dr. Pecci had years of specialized experience treating sports injuries similar to hers.

JJ had torn both her lateral meniscus and medial meniscus, the thick cartilage surrounding the knee to absorb shock. For 12 weeks following the accident, JJ saw Dr. Pecci once a week to remove fluid from her inflamed knee.

An extremely active woman, JJ recalls struggling with the physical and emotional changes that the injury brought.

“I kept telling Dr. Pecci that I had to get back in the gym,” JJ said. “Once the physical pain had been managed he started to level with me about the reality of the situation, which was that regardless of treatment, my knee would not be the same knee that it had been.”

She was not ready to accept what Dr. Pecci told her, which was that she would have to make significant lifestyle changes to tend to the injury. And that would take time and a lot of work.

Hoping for a different diagnosis, JJ sought treatment options and opinions from three other nationally recognized physicians, each time being told that her knee was so badly damaged that it was beyond repair. She was told that her only option was a knee replacement surgery and due to JJ’s age and activity level, she would likely need another replacement in five years.

Distraught and determined to find an alternative treatment, JJ went back to MOS and worked closely with Dr. Pecci to explore her options. In fact, in contrast to what the other physicians told her, Dr. Pecci recommended that she try all treatment options before even considering a knee replacement surgery. The two worked closely and thoroughly researched the alternative treatments, from visco-supplementation to stem cell injections.

“JJ is a very motivated individual and was committed to returning to her active lifestyle,” said Dr. Pecci. “Given the extent of damage to her knee, knee replacement surgery was certainly an option, but I felt there were other innovative, non-surgical options which had a very good chance for success. We worked together to decide what was the best option for her treatment.”

PRP helped JJ’s body heal itself

“I really appreciated Dr. Pecci’s conservative approach to treatment,” says JJ. “He recognized my determination and strongly suggested that I try other options before considering a total knee replacement surgery.”

Failure was not an option for JJ. She wanted an alternative that had the best prognosis for successful healing. Dr. Pecci suggested a relatively new procedure called platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injections. These inject the patient’s concentrated platelet-rich plasma found in his or her own blood into the site of damage. PRP relieves pain but also helps rebuild the damaged tissue, as the plasma is thought to release protein growth compounds that promote healing.

The PRP injections were not covered by JJ’s medical insurance and at the time there was no concrete research suggesting that PRP would be effective in treating a knee as badly damaged as JJ’s. But she relied on her faith and trust in herself and Dr. Pecci, and decided to try the PRP procedure.

Eighteen months post-injury, JJ considers herself to be 80-90 percent recovered. She works out 6 days a week for 2 hours at a time with a personal trainer. To accommodate her injury, she opts for agility training and stand-up paddling instead of speed skating and surfing.

“I credit JJ’s success to her perseverance and dedication toward recovery,” said Dr. Pecci. “I really felt we were partners working toward the same goal. I was just as happy and excited about her recovery as she was.”

Due to her strides in recovery, JJ is planning a trip to Israel with her family in December and plans to climb Masada, an ancient rock plateau overlooking the Dead Sea. Not for the weak-hearted, the path to the top is an estimated 1,300 feet.

She credits the strong partnership between her and Dr. Pecci as one of the most important elements of her successful recovery. Had she listened to other opinions, she may have opted for a knee replacement surgery with a long and challenging recovery time.

“Dr. Pecci offered me options when other physicians didn’t. He was open to and appreciative of how engaged I was as a patient in my own recovery – and he encouraged it,” recalls JJ. “I never felt rushed during office visits and I always felt that all of my questions – trust me, there were a lot of them – were answered honestly.”

Among other ingredients of her success, JJ refers to optimism, perseverance, humility and determination as necessary factors to overcoming obstacles such as hers. From JJ’s first-hand experience, she knows that people’s lives can indeed change in an instant.

“The course of my prognosis changed the instant that I met Dr. Pecci. My medical outcome would have been decidedly different had our paths not crossed,” said JJ. “So, it appears that I did get my miracle after all, at Muir Orthopaedic Specialists in the form of Dr. Matthew Pecci.”