The Rewards and Challenges of Treating Elite Athletes

Friday, February 07, 2014 3:33 PM

Dr. DunlapBradley Dunlap, MD, Orthopaedic Surgeon and Sports Medicine specialist at NorthShore, has been treating elite-level hockey players since 2009. He has worked with USA Hockey as a team physician during tournaments in the United States and Europe. As a former college hockey player, his own personal athletic experience provides insight into the way athletes think, both in injury and health.

Here, he tells us what inspired his pursuit of sports medicine and why getting an athlete back in the game is the biggest reward of all:

Were you a hockey player yourself?
I grew up playing hockey starting at the age of five and played through college at Yale University. I still play occasionally in adult hockey leagues and am on the ice several times a week helping coach my nine-year-old son’s team. My daughters, ages four and five, are also on the ice, learning to skate.

What made you choose sports medicine/orthopaedics as a specialty? 
I sustained a knee injury that required surgery while playing hockey my freshman year in college. My surgeon was a former Yale football player and he did a great job taking care of me. He got me back on the ice without missing a beat. That’s what sparked my interest in orthopaedics and, in particular, sports medicine. I love working with motivated athletes, helping them to get back to the best of their abilities. I feel that as a former athlete, I have some insight into how athletes think and take great joy in seeing them get back into the game.

What is the day-to-day like for a team physician, particularly as a physician of hockey players?
There is actually a lot of down time covering these tournaments.  I love being around hockey, talking hockey with the players, coaches and training staff so I get to be around that during these tournaments.  Typically, I consult with the training staff and evaluate players before and after practice and am obviously ready should there be any injuries that occur during game play. While there are the more significant injuries to tend to (lacerations, dislocations, concussions), many times it’s just as important to make sure that things such as pink eye don’t spread throughout the team or that a player with the flu has a separate water bottle from the rest of the team. Hockey players in general are great to deal with. The perception is that hockey players are rough and tough, but they actually tend to be good-natured, down to earth, and appreciative of the help we can provide.

What challenges have you encountered as a hockey team physician? 
As with any elite athletes, the players we work with are incredible competitors.  They love hockey and they love to be on the ice.  However, it can be difficult at times as they can minimize the significance of injuries, especially those that require subjective complaints and feedback such as concussions.  It is my job to make sure we look out for the athlete’s best interest and health, both short-term and long-term.  It can be unpopular to pull a player off the ice, but if it’s the right thing to do then that is ultimately my job and that is why I’m there with the team.

What are the rewards of working with elite athletes?
The biggest reward is seeing the players succeed. The team physician is just one cog in the wheel to maximize and optimize the players’ abilities. There is also personal satisfaction for me in being able to combine two of my passions: hockey and medicine.

How does your work with USA Hockey inform your treatment of other patients?
I think working with athletes of any level is fundamentally the same. Is there a difference between working with the elite young athletes at USA Hockey who will someday make hockey their profession and a weekend warrior who just needs to be able to be on the ice or court Saturday afternoon? Absolutely. But my goal is the same: to keep them in the action and maximize their ability to compete and be at their best. 

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