Times Herald-Record—MIDDLETOWN, N.Y.—August 7, 2007
He was 10 when he started following his father, Martin, a respected local orthopedic surgeon, room to room during his rounds. As a teenager, he removed casts from patients' arms and legs with dad at his side. He worked in his father's South Street office—where the family lived—during high school.
Dr. Altchek, a solid tennis player at Middletown High, was an undergrad at Columbia University and graduated from New York's Cornell University Medical College in 1982. He completed his residency and fellowship at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. Martin Altchek, who died three years ago, expected his son to return home to work with him.
David stayed in New York.
"I always knew I didn't want to work for my dad, but I never had the courage to tell him," he says. "When I told him I wanted to work in sports medicine and stay on staff at (Hospital for Special Surgery), he said it was a stupid decision. The field really didn't exist."
But sports medicine has come a long way in the last two decades, and Dr. Altchek is a pioneer whose name appears in the sports pages almost as often as some of his patients.
Just last year he found himself telling one high-profile patient he needed surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff.
The patient looked down at the floor in Dr. Altchek's Upper East Side office. He shook his head in disappointment.
Dr. Altchek assured the patient he would be OK after the procedure and several months of grueling rehabilitation.
But this was a diagnosis that went beyond the typical doctor-patient relationship. Everyone wanted to know if the player would be OK. Especially Mets fans.
Pedro Martinez's career was at stake.
"You know in the back of your mind that your result—or his result—is going to be evaluated by hundreds, thousands or millions of people," says Dr. Altchek, the Mets' medical director who repaired Martinez's bad shoulder last September. "So it presents a very high level of challenge. If you like what you do, that's good."
Dr. Altchek, Middletown High Class of 1974, is one of the top orthopedic surgeons in the country and peers say he's one of the brightest minds in the field. His patients include Carl Pavano, Nets point guard Jason Kidd and St. Louis pitcher Mark Mulder.
Slicing open arms, knees and shoulders, performing these often difficult surgeries, it all comes naturally to him.
Dr. Altchek is always thinking about the complexity of how the body works and moves. During a round of golf, he constantly watches how his friends hit a drive. On a ski trip, how they move down the mountain.
"I just get it," Dr. Altchek, 50, says. "There are certain things I can see. I find the human body very fascinating."
During his fellowship, Dr. Altchek began studying the revolutionary Tommy John elbow surgery—also known as ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction—on his own. Frank Jobe invented the procedure that has saved the careers of thousands of pitchers, from high school to the pros, in 1974.
Dr. Altchek made improvements to Tommy John surgery that Jobe himself adopted. The young surgeon believed Jobe's procedure was too traumatic on the patient. So he modified it, eliminating incisions made in muscles and nerves and limiting the amount of holes drilled into the ulnar and humerus during the 30-minute operation.
Dr. Altchek calls it the docking procedure, and it's been adopted by surgeons across the country.
"I didn't have any formal training and I was able to look at the moving pieces and put something together myself," he says. "It doesn't seem to be hard. I know that sounds like BS, but it's true."
"I knew he had a great career ahead of him," says Giants' top doc Russell F. Warren, M.D., also of Hospital for Special Surgery, who mentored Dr. Altchek during his residency and fellowship. "David wanted to be highly successful and has performed at a very high level."
Dr. Altchek has seen pro athletes since 1991, when he became the Association of Tennis Professionals Tour's medical director. He worked the tour until 1998, treating top players like Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi at the U.S. Open and Davis Cup.
"It's always very flattering when a very high-profile athlete picks you to be his doctor," he says. "I know there is a public perception about these guys, but all that stuff gets stripped away. They are just like regular patients. Actually, I forget who they are for a moment."
Dr. Altchek first joined the Mets in 1992, operating on big names like Bret Saberhagen and Bobby Bonilla. But, according to The New York Times, he left in 2000 after refusing to place a bid to be the team's official medical provider. New York University's Hospital for Joint Diseases bought the designation and took over.
"I just think there were a lot of changes going on," Dr. Altchek said. "They wanted me to move my practice to NYU and that's not the way I function."
Dr. Altchek returned to the Mets in 2004.
"I'm very proud to say he works for us," says Mets general manager Omar Minaya. "He's the best. I have total trust in his decision-making and the players have that same trust, which is important."
Dr. Altchek does a lot of his work on high-priced pitchers' arms—the lifelines of most organizations. When a player needs Tommy John surgery—which requires a recovery period of from 12 to 18 months—or shoulder surgery, they usually consult Dr. Altchek.
Pavano received opinions from Altchek and high-profile orthopedic surgeons James Andrews—who operated on him twice previously—and Lewis Yocum before opting for Tommy John surgery in late May.
He had Dr. Altchek perform it.
"I think he really made Carl feel comfortable, he has a great bedside manner," says Pavano's agent, Gregg Clifton. "The thing about him is that he's always available. That's not the case with some well-known orthopedists.
"He takes time to explain everything to you and it doesn't sound like it came out of a medical textbook. He looked Carl in the eye and explained things to him in plain English."
Yankee fans may have given up on Pavano, but Mets fans still hope Martinez can pitch in October.
Dr. Altchek and Martinez talk on the phone after each time he throws.
Martinez admitted earlier this week that he doesn't know how he will pitch when he joins the Mets later this month.
But Dr. Altchek tells his patient he will be OK.
Just like he did almost a year ago.
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