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“It’s worth it to get to watch our patients, to be there from the beginning to the end of their recovery.”

Jesse McCulloch is a 12th-grade student at Lutheran East High School in Cleveland Heights. In April 2023, a full year before most of his classmates knew their plans after graduation, Jesse committed to playing for the Michigan State University Men’s Division I basketball program (he officially signed with the school last November). Shortly afterward, he played his first game in the Elite Youth Basketball League – a national league run and funded by Nike – as a member of the Indy Heat Gymrats.

Jesse had been on the radar of avid basketball fans even before then; he started playing on a local AAU team, the Marshall Warriors, in the 6th grade in early 2018. At 6 ft. 10 inches (without shoes) and still growing at age 18, he has won accolades for his achievements as a power forward.

Jesse was a freshman in early December 2020 when, during a regular team practice, his left kneecap popped out of his socket. Initially, he didn’t seek medical treatment. But after a few days of walking on it and attempting to run, the pain and swelling kept getting worse.

That’s when Jesse’s parents, Laurie and Cedric McCulloch, reached out to Nicole Buado, a certified athletic trainer with MetroHealth’s Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (PM&R). For the past four years, Nicole has been on hand to help Lutheran East athletes stay in top form and navigate injuries. For Jesse, that has also included patellar tendinitis, ankle sprains, Achilles tendinitis, shoulder, and back pain, and muscle tightness.

“Nicole is very professional, very friendly,” Laurie McCulloch said. “Jesse was very comfortable with her. I could text her at any time, and she always responded.”

Nicole helped arrange an appointment with Heather A. Rainey, MD, a PM&R specialist, to get his knee checked out.

“I have all the providers on speed dial,” she said. “Whenever I have an issue with an athlete, we’re texting and emailing back and forth.”

Images from an MRI showed the possibility of a meniscus tear. A few days later, while performing the outpatient procedure on Jesse’s knee, pediatric orthopedic surgeon Justin Mistovich, MD, discovered that the injury was instead a possible patellar subluxation – a partially dislocated kneecap.

Within days, Jesse was back at school.

For two months, Nicole and Jesse had one-on-one sessions at the school gym, mostly doing rehab exercises while the rest of the team practiced.

When he wasn’t with Nicole, Jesse was working with physical therapist Andy Lumpkin at MetroHealth Broadview Heights to strengthen the muscles in his knee and improve his range of motion.

“Jesse was so relieved that the injury wasn’t more serious, said his mother, Laurie McCulloch. “He was able to get back in the gym really quick, but he had to take it easy.”

In February 2021, toward the end of the regular season – thanks to his incredible work ethic and the skill of the MetroHealth providers – Jesse had recovered well enough to get the all-clear from Dr. Mistovich and Dr. Rainey to rejoin practice with the team.

In his first return game during the tournament playoffs, Jesse made a three-point shot.

That year, the Lutheran East Falcons won the Ohio High School Athletic Association Division III Boys Basketball State Championship. They reached the Final Four in 2022 and won the tournament again in 2023 and this year.

Among his many honors, Jesse was named co-winner of the All-Ohio Division III Player of the Year 2024 and Player of the Year for Northeast Ohio.

With the season now over, Cedric McCulloch and a host of local coaches are helping get Jesse ready for the next chapter of his journey. Jesse was one of 24 players who participated in this year’s Iverson Classic, a showcase for the top elite high school players. He reports to Michigan State in mid-June.

As for Nicole, she still sees a lot of the winter athletes, the majority of whom also compete in track and field. For athletes who compete on AAU teams during the school’s off-season, she won’t see them until summer conditioning starts at the school.

“I wanted to work with high school athletes,” said Nicole, who joined MetroHealth in 2019. It was her second position following graduation from Ohio University. She also wanted to be able to provide medical care in underserved communities. “We work with kids from all backgrounds – privileged, refugees, those who are learning English,” she said.

MetroHealth is the official sports medicine provider for Lutheran East (a small private school with a large minority population) and four other high schools – John Marshall, Lincoln West, Cleveland Central Catholic, and Garrett Morgan high school. In addition, MetroHealth is the sports medicine provider for the Cleveland Crunch professional indoor soccer team.

The Sports Medicine Department also provides coverage for local adaptive sports competitions – wheelchair rugby and basketball. Dr. Rainey covers most of the events, with the athletic trainers occasionally helping at tournaments.

Nicole is the only athletic trainer at Lutheran East. She quickly established relationships with all the players and coaches.

Nicole spends most of her workday at the high school. For the football, basketball, volleyball, and track and field practices and competitions, her obligations include manual therapy (cupping, instrument-assisted manual therapy, electrical stimulation, icing), taping, and overseeing rehab exercises and stretching.

During competitions, she’s laser-focused on the moves of every athlete, ready at a moment’s notice to run on the court or field or tend to someone who comes to the sidelines. Non-game days are filled with preparticipation physicals required for athletes before the start of their season.

At some home games, she also works with Dr. Rainey and a resident physician when their schedules permit.

Working at MetroHealth, Nicole said, has allowed her to experience something that not everyone in health care gets to do.

“We get to know our patient population even before they need us,” she said. “It’s worth it to get to watch our patients, to be there from the beginning to the end of their recovery.”

MetroHealth Rehabilitation Institute

Our dedication to rehabilitation, research, and education improves care for the most complex injuries and illnesses.

  • For outpatient appointments for adults and children, call 216-778-4414.
    Designed to help adults and children who have functional limitations or pain due to disease or injury, but who aren’t in the hospital right now.
  • For Inpatient services or admission for adults and children 13 years and older, call 216-778-4167.
    Provides advanced care for adults and children (13 years and older) recovering from serious medical conditions, including spinal cord injury, brain injury, stroke, orthopedic concerns, trauma, or surgery.