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Ochsner’s Sports Medicine Center mends Saints and weekend warriors alike

The walls of most medical clinics are decorated with soothing pastel paintings that are so nondescript they’re practically invisible. But Ochsner’s Sports Medicine Center is different. Large photographic cutouts of athletes run, swim and leap across the lobby and corridors of the building, which is located across from the Elmwood Shopping Center in Harahan. And in what other medical offices are you going to find a framed, signed Hornets jersey once belonging to Chris Paul hung next to an identically mounted Saints jersey signed by Drew Brees? Clearly, the patients here are different, too.

Ochsner is the official health-care partner of both the Saints and the Hornets, and the organization’s logo appears around the Superdome and the New Orleans Arena. But the relationship between the health-care nonprofit and the city’s sports team runs deeper than a standard sponsorship. Through its Sports Medicine Center, Ochsner provides medical care for the athletes who make New Orleans proud. The center makes sure they stay in great health and recover from injuries efficiently and prudently.

In the minds of local sports fans, the relationship between Ochsner and the city’s two prominent professional teams seems to have been forged long ago. But in actuality, Ochsner has only had a sports medicine program since 2004. And in all likelihood, the program wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for one physician in particular: Dr. Deryk Jones.

“I was working at the Tulane University School of Medicine, and Ochsner wanted to hire me because of my reputation there,” Jones said. “I told them if you want me to sign up, you need to start a sports medicine program. I wouldn’t have switched employers otherwise.”

At Tulane, Jones was on the faculty of the Department of Orthopedic Surgery (where he still retains a teaching position) and looked after the university’s sports teams as well as some high school teams. As he was getting to know Ochsner, he and Warner Thomas, Ochsner’s president and chief operating officer, hit it off. Together they went up to the University of Pittsburgh, where Jones had done his fellowship in sports medicine. The facilities at the university’s Center for Sports

Medicine, which is affiliated with the Pittsburgh Steelers and other teams, sprawl over a 40-acre, state-of-the-art complex. It includes a therapeutic pool, MRI technology and plenty of specialized areas.
“I told him, ‘This is what you want it to look like,’” Jones says.

Ochsner signed up Jones and committed itself to supporting the new Sports Medicine Center. In retrospect, the decision seems like a no-brainer, but that wasn’t necessarily the case. “Ochsner has benefited from our sports medicine center and our relationship with the Saints, but it wasn’t obvious at first. I had to push for the program,” Jones recalls.

As the program got under way, Jones began assembling his team of physicians and surgeons. In addition to Jones himself, the physicians are Dr. Misty Suri; Dr. Scott Montgomery; and Dr. Matthew McQueen. There are also two physicians’ assistants, who are qualified to care for patients, and 27 trainers. Ochsner also runs a fellowship program with two fellows each year studying sports medicine.

And while players for the Saints and the Hornets are the most notable patients, Ochsner’s sports medicine program doesn’t exist solely for them, not by a long shot. It cares for high schools teams in Jefferson and St. Tammany parishes and for university teams across the city, from Loyola and Delgado Community College to Xavier and Dillard. Most importantly, the center is for everyday members of the community who enjoy going to the gym, playing sports on the weekends and leading an athletic lifestyle in general.

So what is “sports medicine” anyway? Basically, it is a subspecialty of orthopedics, the branch of medicine concerned with the skeletal system and the muscles and ligaments that hold it together and power it. And sports medicine in particular concerns itself with athletic activity and associated injuries. Orthopedists are generally surgeons, and surgery certainly is necessary in sports medicine. But sports medicine also seeks to prevent surgery through healthy athletic practices.

“A big part of preventing injuries is core strength,” says Dr. Suri. “That means the strength of your pelvis, hips and lower back muscles. Whether you’re talking about a baseball pitch or a golf swing, the basis of the action needs to be in your hips. You don’t want your extremities to work in isolation.”

Beyond the preventive health reasons for using core strength when playing sports, it also makes you a better player. “If motion is biomechanically sound, it’s superior and more efficient,” Suri adds.

Suri grew up in New Orleans, attended Ben Franklin High School and was a big sports fan. However, it wasn’t fandom that led him on his career path. He became interested in sports medicine when he tore his knee, more specifically his anterior cruciate ligament, when playing tennis in college.

“I was studying pre-med, and I was curious to learn about my own injury,” he says. “That experience helps me now, too, because I have a good perspective about what my patients are going through.” (Interestingly, Dr. Jones also first became interested in sports medicine when he tore the same ligament playing soccer.)

Jones and Suri are both physicians for the Saints. They travel with the team during the away games and are on the sidelines of the Superdome when the team’s at home. While not many injuries are as newsworthy as Reggie Bush’s broken leg earlier this season, football is a violent sport, and there are always sprains and strains to be treated. Meanwhile, sports medicine specialists see different types of injuries with basketball players, whose ankles, knees and legs take a pounding over and over again.

Drs. Montgomery and McQueen are the two members of Ochsner’s sports medicine team who cover the Hornets side. They don’t travel with the Hornets except during the playoffs. The Hornets, after all, play more than 80 games during a regular season (compared to the Saints’ 16) and many of those games are midweek. So McQueen and Montgomery stay close to home and also help treat the visiting NBA teams; other teams’ doctors extend the same courtesy to the Hornets during their away games.

McQueen is the one physician on Ochsner’s sports medicine team who is not a surgeon. In essence, he’s the center’s family doctor, albeit one with a sports medicine fellowship on his résumé.  Athletes get sick just like everyone else, after all.

He focuses on the nonoperative side of things and sorts out who indeed does need surgery.

“I was here at Ochsner and had already done my sports medicine fellowship, but my practice had no emphasis on it except that sometimes partners would send me patients with joint problems and little stuff like that,” McQueen says. “When the center here opened up, they invited me to join.”

For many years, McQueen was a physician in the U.S. Navy and he sees a lot of parallels with what he did then and what he does now. “In the Navy, we’d see injuries similar to what you see on the court or the field. Soldiers train hard and are subjected to extreme environments. Being a soldier or Marine is a form of athleticism, and some soldiers are as elite as professional athletes.”

As for his colleague with the Hornets, Montgomery grew up in a small community in Indiana, a state well-known for its love of basketball, and played starting guard in high school, which was a big deal in a little town. But it wasn’t so much his own sports activity that got him into sports medicine but the fact that his father is an orthopedist. The medical side of sports has been part of his life since a young age, and he decided to follow in his father’s footsteps.

The newest member of the sports medicine team, Montgomery signed up with Ochsner and bought a house just weeks before Katrina. “I was in Atlanta during the evacuation, and I called up Dr. Jones and asked ‘Do I still have a job?’” he recalls. Of course, the answer was yes, and he returned to the city. Since he’d gone to Tulane for some of his education, his affinity for New Orleans was already in place. He stayed in Ochsner’s Brent House Hotel as the city began its recovery.

Now he’s devoted to the Hornets. “We work long hours and spend time away from our families. Our relationship with the team is close, so you can’t help but be a fan,” he says. “Also, it’s impressive to be around athletes who perform at such a high level.”

In general, it seems these four doctors’ perspective on treating superstar athletes is one of medical pragmatism mixed with admiration. The athletes are normal patients like everyone else. They’re just people who like to be spoken with directly and honestly. At the same time, the doctors remain somewhat in awe of the athletes’ stature and capabilities.

“These guys are professionals,” says Suri. “Their bodies have the ability to take a pounding for months at a time. Professional athletes are bigger, stronger and generate phenomenal power, and their core strength is unbelievable. They operate on a different plane. That’s why there aren’t many of them.”

And while the professional-athlete patients are simply patients, you shouldn’t expect to see a Saints linebacker or a 6-foot 5-inch Hornets player spilling out of an undersized chair and reading a People in one of the clinic’s waiting rooms. Because they attract so much attention from their fans, the players are treated separately from the general patient population.

That’s not to say professional athletes don’t ever come to the Sports Medicine Center in Elmwood, and they’ll probably come by even more as the center continues to grow. A visitor to the facility these days will have to navigate temporary construction walls and will hear the noises of hammers in the background. Jones’ vision for the center is not yet done, and the estimated final completion date is 2014, ten years after it opened.

There are long-range plans for research and biomechanics labs, but next up is an MRI unit, new offices (so the doctors can move out of converted clinical rooms), surgical suites and a physical therapy area with brand-new equipment and a full pool.

“When you walk into the new physical therapy unit, it will look like you’re walking onto the field of the Superdome,” says Jones. “You’ll see a mural of fans cheering you on. The concept is you’re getting better like a pro. Everyone is getting better together.”