With a black belt in karate, Hunter Thomas, 17, has fought scores of opponents, out-maneuvering them with his quick reflexes.
“I’ve been pretty successful at tournaments and won some national ones,” said Hunter, the son of Jerry and Beth Thomas of Powell. Hunter is a junior at Powell High School and works as an assistant instructor of karate at The Wheeler Academy.
Hunter has battled successfully through a number of health problems as well. Most recently in February 2013, he underwent comprehensive reconstructive surgery on his hip at Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center.
“His hip was misshapen,” said Dr. Paul Yau, Hunter’s orthopedic surgeon. “The ball of the hip should be round like a ball, and his was more like a roughened mushroom, so it was tearing cartilage and rolling out of the socket. I made the joint round for him and repaired two cartilage tears so he could have a chance to be active, run, kick and participate in martial arts.”
Hunter had what’s called “femoroacetabular impingement,” or FAI. It’s a structural disorder of the hip, in which the ball and socket of the hip don’t fit together snuggly and smoothly.
The condition began as a toddler, when Hunter was diagnosed with Legg-Calve-Perthes disease. In this condition, blood supply to the bone is cut off and the bone begins to die. Hunter had surgery on his left hip to preserve the bone.
Then when he was 9 years old, Hunter had a similar but more extensive problem in his right hip. At that point, Hunter had surgery and spent five months in a waterproof body cast from his chest to his ankles.
“That was fun,” joked Hunter. “The only thing I could do was float in the pool and use a hair dryer to dry off.”
To get him out of the house, Hunter’s parents took him to watch his younger brother Dalton’s karate classes at The Wheeler Academy.
Then, as Hunter got out of the cast, instructors at The Wheeler Academy began to work with him on stretching and getting stronger.
“So that’s how Hunter started in karate,” said Beth Thomas.
“He worked his way through that and became a fighter. He won two national championships after that major surgery. The owner, Chuck Reynolds, stands behind every student like that, giving them that kind of encouragement. He was a blessing in our life, as far as making Hunter strong.”
As Hunter grew, he excelled in karate and in school. He was named top Christian athlete in 2012 by his school’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes club and is thinking about going into the medical field someday.
But in 2013, Hunter’s leg pain kicked up again. “I began having pain from my right hip to my right knee – it would wake me up at night,” said Hunter. “And I have a pretty high pain tolerance.”
Because of Hunter’s history, several doctors said they couldn’t repair his hip, and he is too young for a hip replacement. So Beth Thomas began looking outside of Knoxville for a surgeon who could help.
“I did some research and found a surgeon, Dr. John Clohisy, at Washington University in St. Louis, who specialized in adolescent hips,” said Beth Thomas. “Then, shortly after that, we found out about Dr. Paul Yau at Fort Sanders.”
Yau did his orthopedic fellowship training under Clohisy in St. Louis, and he is the only physician in the Knoxville area fellowship trained in this kind of hip impingement surgery.
“One of the things that impressed me is that Dr. Yau didn’t immediately say everything’s going to be perfect,” said Beth Thomas. “He was cautious, and put so much time and effort into making sure Hunter received the best procedure to last as long as it could.”
“A hip replacement at Hunter’s age would be risky,” said Yau. “They wear out and you risk infection the longer you have it in. So I’m hoping with this surgery to preserve his hip, he can wait another 20 to 30 years before needing a hip replacement.”
Yau reshaped the ball at the top of Hunter’s femur, and repaired the damaged cartilage and labrum (soft tissue lining the hip socket), holding it all together with small metal plates.
After surgery, Hunter spent about a month doing physical therapy in Yau’s office, and then Hunter began working behind the desk at The Wheeler Academy.
By June he was back on the mats, and Yau stopped in to see him work out before giving him the OK to compete in a local tournament in September.
“We’ve been through so much together, I wanted to see what he could do,” said Yau.
Hunter placed second in that tournament and first place in two others since then, including the Year End Nationals in Atlanta. He is back to teaching karate as well.
“Dr. Yau is awesome,” said Hunter. “Some doctors didn’t want to do this surgery, but he seemed very confident, very curious and careful with everything. He told me what was going to happen and answered all my questions.
“As far as my everyday activity, I haven’t had any pain,” he said. “I’ve gotten full power back in my leg and full flexibility.”
The Thomas family said they would recommend Dr. Yau and Fort Sanders to anyone facing hip surgery.
“It was great care, it really was,” said Beth Thomas. “They were really good to him.”