The human body isn’t built to snap at the top of your calf, but one wrong step on the practice field caused a BYU women’s soccer player’s calf to do just that, launching her into the infamous role of a medical marvel.
It was just another normal Thursday for BYU sophomore women’s soccer player Carla Swensen Haslam. The team was preparing for the home game against Pacific and running the same drills she had been running for years.
She saw the ball in the air, collected it at her feet, took a hard step to the left and then pushed back off the outside of her foot to avoid an incoming teammate. Swensen Haslam heard three loud distinct pops before collapsing to the ground.
“To be honest, this is like my first real injury,” Swensen Haslam said. “I’ve sprained my ankle or pulled a muscle (before), but as far as long-term injuries that keep you out, this is my very first one so I don’t know anything.”
Her doctors initially thought she had a torn ACL, but Swensen Haslam’s injury turned out to be a complete separation of the lateral (outside) calf muscle from the bone. According to Jonathan Wisco, Ph.D, director of BYU’s human anatomy labs, the odds of injuries considered “very rare” are one-in-two million. The odds of Swensen Haslam’s injury are one-in-a-billion.
The fact that the muscle tore from the top down and not the bottom up makes the injury so rare. Typically, when a muscle detaches from the Achilles tendon, it’s easy to reattach through surgery. But Swensen Haslam’s calf muscle is nearly impossible to reattach to the short tendon at the base of the knee. Doctors are hopeful that the scar tissue will build up and envelop the bone. There’s no way that she’ll ever get her calf muscle back, but doctors are thinking that the scar tissue could serve as an adequate substitute.
“People lose their calves in injuries all the time,” Wisco said. “You’re not losing a whole lot, so if you had to pick one muscle to lose, this would be a good one.”
Adding to the rarity is the fact that Swensen Haslam’s injury occurred on the lateral (outside) muscle. That kind of injury has only ever been seen on the medial (inside) muscle.
While avulsions, or small muscle tears that chip off a piece of bone when they tear, are not a rare occurrence according to Wisco, the clean and simple tear Swensen Haslam experienced is very rare. Wisco laughed out loud at the thought of a completely white MRI because there was no muscle blocking the view of the flat white bone.
“There are certain anatomical things that are extraordinarily rare. It’s a big deal in the medical community,” Wisco said.
Swensen Haslam knows first hand what a big deal it is to sustain an injury that is the first of its kind. Just three days after her muscle rolled into a ball and settled in the middle of her calf, Swensen Haslam had doctors and medical professionals from all around the United states calling both her and her doctor Kirt Kimball to find out more.
“What happened is that Dr. Kimball, because he had never seen it before, called just a plethora of people and so that kind of spread the word,” Swensen Haslam said. “I’m sure it just spread like wildfire because they then went and talked to their surgeon buddies and they didn’t know, so then it just kind of spread.”
While no one ever dreams of being a medical marvel one day — a status that Swensen Haslam never planned for — she remains optimistic. She’s even learned to poke fun at herself as she recovers.
“People always ask me ‘hey are you the girl with the calf muscle?’” Swensen Haslam said. “I always joke back and say ‘no, I have no calf muscle.’”