Rugby player conquers rare hip condition


Kent State senior, Keegan Gillilan, an exercise science major with a minor in entrepreneurship, shows off his knee brace after his multiple surgeries over the past month. Gillilan was diagnosed with a rare hip condition that caused the need for multiple surgeries, which took him off the rugby field and onto the sidelines.

Kyle Samec

In January of his sophomore year, exercise science major Keegan Gillilan sat at his computer in his room at McDowell Hall.

His legs hurt. They almost always hurt.

As he often did, he cruised the web looking for information on aching knees and legs.

And this time, there it was:

Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) in New York – a specialized orthopedic hospital ranked No. 1 in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. As he read about the kinds of patients they had helped, he knew he had found something special.

“It brought me almost to the point of tears, knowing that I had a way to fix what bothered me so much about myself and so much about where I was at in life,” he said.

Gillilan’s legs had bothered him since he was 11 years old.

For years, doctors told him the pains would go away over time, that there was nothing to worry about, and that it was not unusual for a young person who loved playing sports.

But it never got better. He tried home remedies to dull the pain, but nothing really worked.

“(When he was young), he kept saying he had leg pain,” said Gillilan’s mother, Nicol Gaston. “We just thought it was growing pains and the doctors didn’t really notice anything … we didn’t think anything of it.”

Gillilan said his family physician told him he would simply grow out of the problems.

“I never knew why I was slower than all the other kids,” he said. “I never knew why my legs hurt and I had knee pain.”

All his friends only complained about an occasional headache.

“I was experiencing pain that 40-year-old men complain about, and I just could not figure out why therapy or stretching (wasn’t) helping these problems.”

But Gillilan, now a senior and the president of the Kent State men’s rugby club team, learned it was a “hip anteversion.” Gillilan’s hips had pointed inward, causing his femurs to turn and bow inward and tibias to bow outward as he grew.

When Gillilan was a freshman in high school, his stepfather, Matthew Harte, introduced him to rugby, a popular sport in Harte’s native England.

Gillilan said rugby is a sport that allows anyone to find a place on the field, no matter his or her physical limitations.

“I found a sport that I felt at home in,” Gillilan said. “This sport just shouts ‘work for the man next to you.’ It’s the closest thing to being in the military. When you’re taught right, you’re playing not only for yourself, but for the team’s ambitions as well. That means specifically the guy who you’re playing alongside … these guys don’t tell me that I’m slow and incapable, these guys tell me there’s a spot for me no matter what as long as I show I’ll put the work in for them.’”

That team atmosphere is really what makes him want to promote the sport throughout his life, he said.

Gillilan played on the Kent State club team his first two years at the university, but the pain in his legs eventually forced him to give it up.

However, after he found HSS on the Internet, he had a path to follow that would get him back on the field. Within a week of his discovery, he contacted Dr. Austin Fragomen.

For months, Gillilan and Fragomen tried to mesh Fragomen’s packed surgical schedule with Gillian’s student schedule and the complications of getting to and from New York for appointments and the surgery itself.

“The doctor’s words to me were, ‘He is incredibly tenacious in getting my attention,’” Gaston said. “He was persistent enough to get an interview with the doctors at HSS. It’s very hard to get in with these guys.”

In May, Gillilan underwent a proximal tibial osteotomy. The procedure involves inserting pins into the two bones of the leg, the tibia and the femur. The surgeon then breaks the top of the tibia and the bottom of the femur so the bones can begin to heal and become sturdy around the pins.

During recover, a cage wraps around the knee to hold the pins in place, and a small strut is rotated slightly by the patient after surgery to gradually realign the leg.

Doctors conduct the surgery one leg at a time to keep the patient from becoming bedridden. They worked on Gillilan’s right leg first because it had worse bowing and would take longer to heal.

The first three weeks were the worst.

“I’ll tell you … it’s probably one of the hardest things I’m ever going to do in my life,” Gillilan said.

The surgery on his left leg came in August, and Gillilan returned to Kent State weeks later on crutches.

His brother, Kolton, a sophomore philosophy major also at Kent State, rooms with him.

“I’m so thankful because I couldn’t have done this without my brother,”  Gillilan said. “He basically babysat me.”

Kolton said it wasn’t easy for his brother.

“In the beginning, he relied heavily on me for things such as getting him food, drinks, helping him to the bathroom and putting on clothes,” Kolton said. “But he is a very motivated individual, and coped well overall.”

Kolton said the surgery was a no brainer when it came down to the alternative: possible knee replacements by the age of 25.

The motivation his brother speaks about is the same one that his rugby teammates see every day in their president.

Junior pre-nursing major and rugby player Ian Brooks said Gillilan worked through his recovery to help the team and motivate them in any way possible.

“I wouldn’t say the surgeries affected him too much,” Brooks said. “He’s still the charismatic guy that we all met and trust to lead this team.”

Brooks said everybody on the team was willing to help out to see its leader make a full recover, and that even meant making Gillilan see he wasn’t superman.

“He’s part of our brotherhood,” Brooks said. “However, his personality is one that he doesn’t like asking for help with simple tasks, and sometimes he would try to do too much and end up putting himself in a situation where he could have gotten hurt badly.”

But Brooks laughs about it now.

“I will say he is the only person I know who can crutch without using his hands … that to me is impressive,” he said.

Gillilan’s experience inspired him to study exercise science and entrepreneurship. He hopes to help children and young people who deal with problems similar to his.

Since the first day of his surgeries, Gillilan said he couldn’t allow anything to slow him down. His mother said it’s remarkable how he could go to school and work with the team while recovering.

“He has been pretty amazing,” Gaston said. “He just never let anything get him down on this and just really kind of kept going.”

Rugby coach Tim Brofman met Gillilan during his recovery.

“He’s the reason why I’m here,” Brofman said. “If it weren’t for him reaching out to me when we happened to cross paths at a Browns game, I would have never started down this path of becoming the head coach. He recognized that every program can only go so far when it doesn’t have the structure of having someone who is the coach.”

Before Brofman became the coach, Gillilan and some other players ran the team.

“It’s impressive to have that kind of foresight to look ahead and say, ‘I can’t play right now, but someday I will play and when I can come back to play, I don’t want this team to be smoldering in the ashes of what it once was,’” Brofman said. “He wants to help us as a team and as a program to grow bigger and better … that goes beyond just, ‘When I come back, I want the team to be good.’ ”

Gillilan said he’ll be cleared for physical activity this spring and that he’s eager to get back to rugby.

“If I had to pick a word … I don’t know if I could,” he said. “I’m so excited. There aren’t a whole lot of words to describe it. I need to pull out a Webster’s (dictionary).”