He can still hear the whistle, then the sickening snap of bone.
It was his first football game as a freshman at Randolph High School in New Jersey, and Robby Foley got hit hard from behind after a play ended.
“My bones broke loud enough, they heard it on the sidelines. It was like cracking wood,” he told the Daily News. “The inside of my heel twisted up and touched the inside of my thigh. It just snapped and folded up like that.”
Fourteen years old at the time, the Randolph, N.J., resident broke his left tibia, fibula and ankle and ripped through three major ligaments. Serious damage to his peroneal nerve left him paralyzed from the knee down.
And his knee swelled up “like a watermelon,” he said.
“I was screaming in pain. I’d never been hurt this severely before. I tried to put my foot on ground and walk, but obviously it didn’t work — it was a wet noodle,” he said.
Local doctors did the initial work setting his bones to mend.
When it was time for knee surgery, a caregiver suggested Rusk Rehabilitation at NYU Langone Health.
Foley made the switch, and his 2011 surgery with Dr. Alice Chu was a success.
Chu replaced his lateral collateral ligament, or LCL, with a cadaver tendon and repaired his anterior cruciate ligament, ACL, and posterior cruciate ligament, PCL.
Still, instead of being on the upswing, Foley said he reached his “lowest point” right after the delicate operation. His dream of playing college sports was crushed.
He had no idea his life was about to take yet another dramatic turn.
“I vividly remember sitting in the hospital, watching the NFL playoffs, looking at my leg. It was hard to see the future. I had no direction,” he recalled.
But the groundworkfor his amazing recovery was already in place. Chu had removed the internal scar tissue needed to give his nerve room to regenerate. Then Rusk’s Director of Motor Recovery Research, Dr. Preeti Raghavan, developed an unconventional strategy to electrically stimulate Foley’s nerve endings during his intensive physical therapy.
The team mapped Foley’s peroneal nerve damage with electromyography and zeroed in on a point that seemed severed at the back of his thigh, right above his knee.
Raghavan worked out a novel plan to combine special exercises with pads delivering electrical stimulation in specific areas.
“The idea was to give electrical stimulation at the time of physical therapy so there would be a message for the nerve to grow into a particular location and bridge the severed area,” she said. “Within months, sensation started to return.”
Around the same time, Foley found a new outlet for his athleticism — race car driving.
His dad promised if he got two semesters of straight As, he could attend Skip Barber Racing school in California. Foley aced his schoolwork, then aced the racing course and joined the Sports Car Club of America. He earned his racing license at the tender age of 15.
“I was reinvigorated. I was trying to get better now so I could do this,” he said. “It gave me new drive, new energy to get through the rehabilitation work.”
He put up with pain for the gain. Foley at first had to use a special brace that helped him lift his leg when he needed to operate the clutch. He said it hurt, but he powered through.
Now 21, Foley can walk without a brace and is a mechanical engineering student at Auburn University in Alabama.
He won the Skip Barber Pro Challenge Championship in 2015 and a $100,000 “Mazda Road to 24” scholarship to support his 2016 racing season.
In July, he finished third in a professional race at Lime Rock Park in Connecticut, driving a Ligier LMP3 for his team, P1 Motorsports.
“Now, I actually have feeling almost throughout my entire leg. Before, if I was looking away, you could hit me with a hammer and I wouldn’t know. It was totally dead,” he said. “I can’t run a marathon, but I can live my dream.”
Raghavan said Foley’s treatment is indicative of the innovative care offered at Rusk.
“We’re not giving up on the patient no matter how bad their condition is. We want to help them get better to the best of their ability,” she said. “We know there are so many tools available. It’s all a question of how you use them on a particular individual.”
Last year, more than 261,000 people received outpatient treatment at Rusk Rehabilitation, and more than 2,100 got inpatient care, the hospital said.
Rusk’s renowned staff includes 109 certified specialist physical therapists and 36 certified rehabilitation registered nurses.
U.S. News has consistently ranked Rusk a Top 10 rehab hospital since 1989.
“What really makes Rusk special is that we put our heads together to solve problems. We innovate for every patient we see to bring out the very best in them,” Raghavan said.
“(Foley’s case) is a great story, and we couldn’t possibly be happier for this young man’s outcome, but this is something that happens at Rusk on a regular basis,” Steven Flanagan, chairman of Rusk Rehabilitation at NYU Langone Health, told The News.
“Electrical stimulation is a part of rehabilitation medicine where we are gaining much more knowledge as a field,” he said.
Beyond stimulation of the peripheral nerves — the form used on Foley — doctors are applying it to stimulate the brain and other parts of the body after injury, he said.
“Electrical stimulation is something we’re looking towards doing more of as a field as we move forward in research and our understanding,” he said.
“What we try to achieve at Rusk Rehabilitation, is to bring people back after a devastating injury or illness to doing what’s most important for them. For this young man, it was racing cars, and for someone else, it might be being a homemaker,” said Flanagan.
“Whatever is important to them, that’s the goal we set out and try to accomplish.”