“Going into my senior year of high school, I had committed to Duke two years prior. I was used to being on top of the world because of soccer. I was used to it being my everything, I was used to being known for it. I was proud of it.”
From a young age, Abby Pyne found a passion in soccer. She remembers that her hometown of Dixmont, Maine didn’t have a youth team for her age group, so she sat on the sidelines while her older sister played. Pyne said she began competing when, “one day, someone got hurt and they were down a player, so I got to go in. I knew this was the best day ever.”
As time progressed, so did Pyne’s prowess. Since her freshman year, 6’1” Pyne dominated between the goalposts every fall for her high school varsity soccer team in Bangor, Maine. Her presence brought accolades, including the All-American and All-Regional Honoree, a three time All-League and All-State title, plus the Maine State Championship four years in a row. Her performances on the high school level didn’t go unnoticed as she both played for the US Women’s National Team from ages 12 through 17, and received a full scholarship to Duke University. TopSoccerDrawer.com ranked Pyne as a top ten goalkeeper before she had played a game for the Blue Devils.
Her promising career would soon come to a close, as a knee injury in the summer before her senior year would begin a chain reaction of impairments on both of her legs. Eventually, she would lose soccer, and be forced to shift away from what she had previously thought to be her career.
During a goalkeeper camp in preparation for the U19 women’s national team, Pyne experienced the combination of an impact injury and an overuse injury which crippled her left knee. “I remember walking into the doctor’s appointment. The doctor pulled up my MRI and said, ‘you’re going to wish you had an ACL.’ He explained to me that I had knocked off a chunk of cartilage under my left kneecap, so every time I bent or flexed my knee, or put any weight on it I was driving a ton of force straight through my kneecap, which was now down to the bone.”
Her first surgery required a 12-18 month recovery, which meant Pyne wasn’t able to play going into her freshman year of college. She sat out the DI NCAA season during the fall, before training during the spring of her freshman year. “A week and a half before preseason of my sophomore year, I thought I was going to land a starting spot. My knees blew up again, and whereas previously it was concentrated on my left knee, this time both blew up.” After getting her MRI’s done, her surgeon, Doctor Alison Toth, informed Pyne that she needed extensive knee surgery on both legs.
After working in rehab for two and a half years on her prior surgery, Pyne decided she wouldn’t get the surgery done. With her sophomore preseason about to start, doctors did a series of three injections on each knee. In order for her to get to a point to play, her doctors regulated the amount of training she could do and she didn’t have the ability to run. Pyne was practicing for her team, however much of the soccer she was allowed to play was heavily monitored and restrained. Despite being regulated by her doctors, she did play competitively games for the Duke varsity team.
In her second season as a Duke player, the girls soccer team qualified for the NCAA tournament. Before the round of 32, another tweak of her knees resulted in a bilateral MRI. The team was about to go on an away trip, so all the players were downstairs in the locker room of the training facilities. Pyne recalled that, “my athletic trainer called me upstairs, saying that Doctor Toth is here to talk to you. I went upstairs to see a ton of people in the training room after this ominous call. They take me to this back room before [Doctor Toth] pulled up my MRI’s and showed me the cartilage graft on my left knee had failed, so the cartilage was entirely down to the bone. Kneecap was breaking because there was no cartilage to support it.”
After Toth showed Pyne the MRI on her left knee, which was injured beyond repair, she switched to the MRI her right knee, one that previously appeared to be less of an issue. “It almost seemed to be worse than my left knee,” Pyne said. Toth explained that the only surgery available to Pyne was an ACI (Autologous Chondrocyte Implantation), which extracts and uses the cartilage producing cells in your body as a base to expand into cartilage for implantation. Since the 12-18 month surgery was required for both knees, the surgeries would have to be staggered in order to use bear weight.
Toth then clarified, “this is it. This is career ending.”
There is no surgery now that fully heals cartilage.
Pyne underwent the bilateral scope, the first part of the ACI surgery, and recovered in 21 days. She began practicing with the team before the Elite Eight of her sophomore year. The team lost in the national championships in December. Pyne then had another surgery on Christmas Eve her sophomore year in an attempt to fix the cartilage defects under her knee. This surgery also required her tibia to be cut in half and repositioned. A year and a half later, after her left knee had healed sufficiently, she received a similar cartilage replacement and tibial reconstruction on her right knee.
Abby has had eleven knee surgeries total, eight on her left knee and three on her right. Three major operations took twelve to eighteen months to recover, and she has spent roughly six years rehabbing from her surgeries. In total, Pyne played three competitive games for Duke.
Duke Athletics with Medical School
From losing the NCAA championship, to getting a massive knee surgery, the spring of 2016 was difficult for Pyne. She described how she, “was just trying to figure out and find a new passion. I had gone my entire life with a very singular passion that was entirely dependent on my body being able to function.” In addition to playing soccer at Duke, Pyne also coached for their summer camps. Through soccer camps, she met and became close with a young girl who eventually was diagnosed with cancer. Pyne frequented the hospital to see her and through these visits, realized she loved working with children in the hospital. She began to work through volunteering hours to expose herself to the positives of Duke Hospital and what Duke Athletics was possibly lacking.
Pyne worked with the staff at Duke Hospital to set up a program through athletics to bring other Duke athletes to the children’s hospital. “It was an awesome program that helped me to figure out my new passion, which was the hardest emotional part [of losing soccer].” The arrangement of Athlete Wednesdays, which was propelled by Pyne’s surgeries and athletics, culminated into her current medical major. “Being able to fix myself emotionally by channelling my emotions into a new passion was how I got through that.”
With similarities in medicine and athletics, Pyne found it easy to transition from one to the other. She stated that, “with the discipline it requires, the teamwork it requires, the never-stop-working mentality, where you always have something to learn, the two are alike.”
Pyne is now working on her graduate studies at Columbia University studying Health Sciences, and is on track to begin medical school in 2020. She is also researching patellar cartilage defects at the Hospital for Special Surgery, working with patients similar to herself, with knee cartilage problems. She emphasized that, “my journey, while filled with pain and setbacks, has brought me from relying on my body to relying on my mind, and from playing for others to simply helping others.”
Her medical career means more to her than her former career in sports. “While athletics provided me the chance to inspire others, medicine allows me to be able to directly change someone’s life,” Pyne concluded.