Bella Hutchens remembers the pain. And the loud pops.
“We were at an away basketball game, and I was driving for a layup,” recalled the 16-year-old multisport athlete from Pinnacle, North Carolina. “No one was in the lane, and then a girl behind me suddenly pushed me forward. Then, another girl came in and stepped on my foot, and my right ankle made a popping sound. It actually popped five times, and I fell to the ground.
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“Everyone thought it was a temporary thing – that I’d get up and get back in the game,” she said. “But I couldn't. I couldn't feel my ankle. I couldn’t feel my foot. Our athletic trainer and my coach both helped me up. I was screaming; I was in so much pain.”
Bella pleaded with them to take her shoe off; she couldn’t get it off herself. They did, and then they had to cut off her sock because of the swelling.
There’s no good time to be injured, but the timing of Bella’s injury was particularly worrisome. The 5’11” outside volleyball hitter for the East Surry High School Cardinals was hurt Jan. 31. Already being heavily recruited by colleges, she had a showcase volleyball tournament Feb. 18 in Washington. Recruiters would be there watching.
While Bella was injured playing basketball for the Cardinals, volleyball is the sport she wants to continue in college. It’s a sport she also plays for the Twin City Volleyball Academy in Winston-Salem. Until this year – when her travel schedule got too busy – she also played softball.
Bella and her mom, Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center chief operating officer Alisha Hutchens, drove to Novant Health Orthopedics & Sports Medicine - Winston-Salem the morning after the injury. “We didn’t have an appointment; we just walked in,” Hutchens said. “It was a nice surprise when Dr. (Phillip) Mason walked in the room. We didn’t know if we’d get to see him, but we were hoping. I’d heard such phenomenal things about him.”
Bella got in so quickly not because her mom works for Novant Health or because she’s an athlete – but because of Novant Health’s belief that “pain can’t wait.” At Novant Health, orthopedic offices throughout the Novant Health system are equipped to see walk-in patients who have been injured. “We’re using an urgent care model in order to see patients as soon as possible,” Mason said. “Our office is set up so we can see patients who need us right away.”
And it’s not just for athletes. Anyway, as Mason said, “everyone’s an athlete in some way.”
Physical therapy would be key
Hutchens appreciated more than just the quick response. “As a parent, I liked that Dr. Mason spoke directly to Bella,” she said. “He was respectful to me but addressed her directly. He could tell she was anxious. And I could tell he was fully invested in helping her heal.”
The car ride to Mason’s office had been tense. “I was worried for her,” Hutchens said. “We knew that ‘This, too, shall pass’ and that people experience injuries every day. But to a 16-year-old, the mental aspect of it was rough. Dr. Mason’s positive attitude changed Bella’s attitude. She wasn’t worried after we left his office.”
Mason asked Bella an important question: What are your goals? She told him she was being recruited and that she really wanted to play in college. Mason said he couldn't make any promises, but said he’d do all he could to get her ready for that crucial showcase. And Bella would need to be fully dedicated to the intensive physical therapy he recommended.
An X-ray showed that her ankle was sprained – not fractured. Mason put Bella in a boot she’d need to wear for at least a week. Her physical therapist advised her to walk on it as much as she could tolerate. She’d walk around the house, but the pain made even that hard.
Bella said, “The last thing Dr. Mason said at my appointment was that (Kansas City Chiefs QB) Patrick Mahomes played in the playoffs with a sprained ankle. He was very positive, so I was, too.”
Bella went to physical therapy twice a week for the first two weeks and, after that, did her exercises at home three times a day. She dropped back to once-a-week, in-office physical therapy until she “graduated.” She now tapes both her ankles as a precaution before games.
Thanks to Mason and her own hard work and strength, Bella made it to Washington and played in the showcase. “It was my first time playing since the injury,” she said. She hadn’t even been to a practice before she had to perform in front of recruiters.
Bella even recovered in time to return to the last few basketball games of the season, which her mom said “was important to her to end that season on the court with her team.” She was also named the Foothills 2A volleyball player of the year for the 2022-23 season.
Bella made a verbal commitment March 7 to play at Appalachian State University after she graduates from high school in 2024.
At her follow-up appointment with Mason, Bella asked why this worked out so well for her, given the compressed timeline between the injury and the make-or-break showcase. Mason’s response: “Because you told me you wanted to play in college.”
He wasn’t going to let anything stand in the way, if he could help it, of a high school volleyball prodigy achieving her dream.
Pain can’t wait, neither should you
If you have an urgent knee, hip, foot and ankle, elbow, shoulder or hand/wrist injury, Novant Health offers walk-in care and treatment across the communities it serves. Click here for walk-in locations. Note: This does not include patients seeking care for back and neck pain, workman’s comp, motor vehicle accident treatment or post-op surgery patients.