CLEVELAND — After a severe fracture caused his skull and face to cave in during a soccer game, Philip Vlastaris says he’s thankful. The St. Ignatius senior had to undergo a full reconstructive procedure at the Cleveland Clinic, which allowed him to get back on the field in time to help his team advance and win its fourth consecutive state championship.
Vlastaris, who plays outside back, remembers, what is described as a “freak accident,” like it was yesterday.
“We were playing Western Reserve Academy,” he recalled. “They were giving us a good game. We were actually down one to nothing. With 15 minutes left we kind of pushed everyone forward off of a set piece and we served the ball and it got cleared up. I jumped up for a header and then…and on my way down from jumping, [me and this] kid, we just hit heads really hard.”
As he laid on the field on October 5th, Vlastaris says he immediately knew something was wrong and his ability to play the game, which he has loved since the age of four, was in jeopardy.
“It was like a 3-centimeter-long dent in my face and I completely blew out my forehead. I shattered my nose over here, my orbital along my eye,” he said.
Philip’s injury is one Dr. Peter Ciolek, a facial, plastic and reconstructive surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic, said he’s only seen in high-speed car accidents. The fracture, which was the size of a golf ball in Vlastaris’ frontal lobe, could have left permanent eye and brain damage.
“Typically for a fracture like this, we approach it through something called a micro-incision, which is an incision that goes over the top of the head from ear to ear. So, it's a very large incision. It's an extensive approach. The recovery can take a long time, and it's something that patients would more typically expect from a neurosurgical procedure or a brain surgery,” Dr. Ciolek said.
But Vlastaris’ pushed to get back to his team “by any means necessary.”
“I told my coaches, not even knowing how long I’d be out, that I’d be back for playoffs. No matter what I was going to try to get back on the field,” he said. “I’ve been working pretty much all of my life to play on this team. It’s my senior year [and] I really, really wanted to play. Being injured is like the worst feeling ever…I just wanted to give a helping hand and help my teammates.”
So, Dr. Ciolek and his team threw out the textbook and moved forward with an out-of-the-box procedure.
“The solution we came up with was to approach the fracture actually through an incision placed right in the eyebrow, overlying the fracture. What this allowed us to do is get more directly at the fractures and experience [to] spare him a large incision over the head,” Dr. Ciolek explained. “He started to feel pretty much back to normal as far as pain and swelling goes after a week or two and we slowly graduated him back into non-contact sports-related activities before getting him back on the soccer field.”
Vlastaris’ surgery was completed in less than a week. He was back playing on the field in less than a month with a custom-made mask, or the LeBron James and Kyrie Irving mask as Vlastaris calls it.
“I wouldn’t have been able to do anything without this,” Vlastaris said.
Vlastaris missed two playoff games. He was able to play in five playoff games before the state championship.
“I came back for the district final against Shaker Heights. I subbed in that game and then finally that following Wednesday against Wooster, I was back in the starting lineup, then in the state championship game down in Columbus, we got the job done.”
St. Ignatius won its fourth consecutive state championship on Nov. 12 against New Albany High School with a final score of 2-0.
Vlastaris says overall his recovery was a smooth process thanks to the Cleveland Clinic team. He says he knew he would be okay and be able to play soccer again.
“Honestly, the only difficult part was having to catch up on homework. I got slammed with a lot of work while I was missing school. I’m still trying to make stuff up,” he said. “That was kind of the only thing I was stressed about, making sure it was in on time and all my college stuff was in."
While the pain he endured from his injury is unmatched, it’s now a testimony Vlastaris says he is blessed to be able to share, along with another state championship title, as he prepares for college.
“Having such great teammates and such great coaches was really key for me.”