“I always wanted to be an orthopaedic surgeon and I was always interested in sports,” he said. “I never really entertained any other specialty.”When he’s not tending to Olympic speedskaters, the sports medicine physician treats patients in Salt Lake City and Park City, Utah. He chairs the department of surgery at the Park City Medical Center and is on staff at Salt Lake City’s Orthopaedic Specialty Hospital.


Published 2/1/2010
Maureen Leahy

Going for gold

Olympic-trained orthopaedic surgeons combine love of medicine, sports

As America’s best athletes head to Vancouver for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, several former Olympians will be among them—as coaches, trainers, and at least one orthopaedic surgeon.

Although Eric Heiden, MD, won’t be whirring around the speedskating rink to add to his five gold medals, he will be the team physician for the U.S. speedskating team, as he has been for several years. It lets him stay involved in the sport he loves.

Dr. Heiden’s interest in ortho-paedics comes naturally—his father was an orthopaedic surgeon in Madison, Wis. The younger Dr. Heiden appreciates that orthopaedics is a very dynamic specialty that’s always changing.

“As a sports medicine physician, I enjoy learning about the biology of healing; for example, what’s going on with joint restoration with native tissues like articulate cartilage,” Dr. Heiden explained. “I also try to stay abreast of what’s happening with genetic engineering. We’re starting to learn a lot about genetics, growth factors, and their importance to healing.”

Thankfully, most of the injuries Dr. Heiden sees with the Olympic speedskaters are overuse injuries such as low back pain or anterior knee pain. “I don’t see surgical problems very often,” he said.

Parallel universes
Preparing to be an Olympic athlete and preparing to be an orthopaedic surgeon are similar, says Dr. Heiden. Both involve perseverance, dedication, focus, and overcoming obstacles.

“Sports gave me the ability to remain focused and dedicated and prepared me for the long hours of medical school,” he said.

Craig Brigham, MD, an orthopaedic surgeon who practices in North Carolina, agrees. During the 1970s, he was also busy training for the Olympics.

“My strength as a physician comes from my ability to work hard, to concentrate for long periods, and to keep plugging away,” he said. “Those strengths can be attributed partly to my nature, but they are also the result of my athletic training. Athletics taught me discipline, focus, and how to stick with something.”

Growing up in Eugene, Ore., Dr. Brigham was quickly drawn toward track and field. In 1972, he set the national high school decathlon record, which remained intact until 2009. Based on his achievements, he was invited to the Olympic trials for the 1972 summer games in Munich. Although he didn’t make the team, he continued to train, and by 1976, he and 1972 Olympic decathlete Bruce Jenner were the top two American scorers in the event.

Olympic decathlon teams are comprised of three athletes who compete in 10 track and field events over 2 days. Winners are determined by their combined performances in all events.

During the 1976 trials, Dr. Brigham, who was still recovering from mononucleosis that he had contracted earlier in the year, failed to make the team. A year later, at a crossroads in his athletic career, he requested a 2-year leave of absence from medical school to train for the 1980 Summer Games. Unfortunately, Dr. Brigham never got to compete; the United States boycotted the games, which were held in Moscow, in response to the Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. He could have been bitter, but he wasn’t.

“I am an American first, and when the boycott was announced, I supported it,” he said. “I always felt that participating in the Olympics was a privilege and I still feel that way, but my main motivation for competing was the personal challenge it represented.”

It’s that sense of challenge that also motivated Dr. Brigham to become an orthopaedic surgeon.

“I didn’t always want to be a doctor,” he said. “I was a good student and went to medical school because it was a challenge. It was during my plastic surgery rotation that I realized I wanted to be a surgeon, and my athletic background pushed me in the direction of orthopaedic surgery.”

Although he has no current involvement with the Olympic program, Dr. Brigham remains close to athletics. “I’m a consultant for the National Football League and treat a lot of football players, but I’m not a sports medicine physician—I am a spine surgeon,” he explained.

Miracle on ice
Dr. Heiden fondly recalls not only his own medals and records, but also the achievement of other athletes, particularly the 1980 U.S. hockey team.

“There was and always will be a huge camaraderie among Olympic athletes,” he said. When the U.S. team faced Russia in the semi-finals on their way to winning the gold medal, he was there. “I actually got to see the game—I was sitting in the stands watching.”

That bond among Olympians continues beyond sports into everyday life.

“If you are an Olympian, it’s sort of a fraternity,” Dr. Heiden explained. “It really opens up doors and it is fun. You get to know people differently than you would the average person, and you have a sense of what they’ve gone through to get to where they are today.”

Maureen Leahy is assistant managing editor of AAOS Now. She can be reached at leahy@aaos.org

From figure skates to surgical scrubs
Winner of the bronze medal for women’s figure skating at the 1988 Winter Olympic Games in Calgary, Debi Thomas, MD, is now a practicing orthopaedic surgeon in the Midwest.

Dr. Thomas began her amateur figure skating career in 1980 after moving with her family from New York to California. In February 1986, during her freshman year at Stanford University, she won the senior women’s title at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. That same year, she took first place at the World Figure Skating Championships, upsetting rival East German Katarina Witt.

Dr. Thomas was the first African-American to win senior championship titles in both American and world figure skating competitions. When she won the bronze medal at the 1988 Winter Olympics, she became the first African-American to win a medal in any Winter Olympic sport. In 2000, she was inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame.

After the 1988 Olympics, Dr. Thomas returned to college and graduated from Stanford in 1991. She went on to graduate from Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, and in June 2005, she completed the orthopaedic residency program at Charles R. Drew University in Los Angeles.