Buford volleyball fans who have witnessed Kaitlin Tatum’s domination on the court would never guess what she has been through for her sport.
At 6’2”, the senior middle hitter/blocker can dig, dive, bump, hit, and put general fear into the hearts of her opponents. You would never know this was the same little girl who had to have four surgeries over the course of 12 years for what seemed like a simple ankle roll.
After Tatum rolled her right ankle chasing a friend in her backyard, Kina Alarcon-Tatum took her five-year-old daughter to see a general orthopedist, after the pain and swelling lasted longer than normal. After spending time in a cast and on crutches – but seeing little improvement – Tatum was referred to a specialist at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.
“I remember being anxious and nervous because it took so long to diagnose,” said Tatum. “I just wanted to know what was wrong.”
Almost a year after her initial injury, Tatum was diagnosed with Trevor’s disease, a congenital bone disorder that caused a benign tumor to attach to the growth plate in her ankle.
“So the tumor basically grows with me,” she said. “As I grew up, every couple of years, when it really started to hurt me, I had to have surgery to clean out the tumor as it grew.”
Between December 2001 and May 2009, Kaitlin had to have three surgeries—two arthroscopic and one open—to clean out her ankle.
“The recoveries were always tough, but physical therapy was fun when I was little,” she said. “There was a padded jungle gym – it was more like play time. Later therapies were designed more specifically for volleyball, to make sure that I could jump and land properly.”
“Her recovery was very difficult,” Kina said. “I don’t think we realized the type of severity that was going on in her ankle.”
Despite the surgeries, Tatum grew into an active, healthy teenager, joining the Buford High School volleyball and basketball teams, and competing in Miss Georgia Teen USA pageants – and has placed in the top five of her last two pageants.
“My weekends are consumed with tournaments and pageants,” Tatum laughed. “My Mom wanted me to be put together and know how to carry myself. Both sports and pageants have transformed me into who I am. Pageants are like another sport – I have a coach, I train, and it’s competitive!”
In 2011, it was decided that Tatum would have a fourth and final surgery to remove the tumor and fix her ankle for good. After surgery on May 20, 2011, Tatum’s recovery process included months of physical therapy that forced Kaitlin to miss her entire junior volleyball and basketball seasons.
“I was really nervous going into this surgery,” said Tatum. “It was more extensive, and my senior volleyball season was riding on it.”
“This one was essentially to remove as much of the cartilage overgrowth as possible,” said Dr. Jorge Fabregas, Tatum’s pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Children’s Healthcare. “In order to do that, we had to de-stabilize her ankle and then stabilize it again by reconstructing her ligaments.”
“You name it, and I have it in my ankle,” laughed Tatum. “They basically tore it apart and put it back together again. I have a bionic ankle.”
The final surgery was successful, completely removing the tumor, rebuilding her ankle, and ridding Tatum of Trevor’s disease for good. However, the extensive recovery and physical therapy caused Tatum to miss her junior volleyball and basketball seasons entirely – and jeopardized her chance to play the sport she loved on a collegiate level.
“It did cross my mind that she might never walk again. Kaitlin’s first step was the happiest moment for me because I knew how badly she wanted to walk,” said Alarcon-Tatum.
“Sometimes I felt like I would never get to where I needed to be,” Tatum said. “There was very little time to get to where I needed to be for college. It was a make-or-break moment. It was hard because I didn’t want to mess up all the hard work the doctors had put into me and all the physical therapy I had put in. It really took everything I had to go through and do it the right way.”
After a year of healing and therapy, Tatum was able to return for a successful senior volleyball season, leading the Lady Wolves to the quarterfinals of the Class AAA state tournament and earning a scholarship to play at Columbus State University, where she is considering majoring in nursing, thanks to time caring for her grandmother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease.
“To be able to play a sport I love and get a college scholarship totally changed my outlook on life. It’s really given me the confidence that I can conquer anything I put my mind to.”
Written by Abby Wilkerson has worked in sports marketing, event planning, communications, copywriting, and now adds freelance sports journalism to her list of endeavors.
Photography by Kate Awtrey