The countdown to the Summer Olympics has begun, and while the world's best athletes are training for the competition of their lives, two HSS surgeons are preparing to spend the summer in Athens as team doctors for the U.S. athletes.
Dr. Jo Hannafin and Dr. Scott Rodeo, both associate attendings in orthopaedic surgery at Hospital for Special Surgery, were selected by the US Olympic Committee (USOC) to join seven other team physicians at the Summer Olympics. These two HSS surgeons, members of the Sports Medicine and Shoulder Service, were selected from a pool of the nation's best doctors in sports medicine. This is the first time in USOC history that two doctors from the same hospital have been selected to care for the American athletes at an Olympic Games.
Dr. Hannafin will travel with the rowing, kayaking, and canoeing teams, and will be stationed shore-side ready to handle any medical issues as they happen. Dr. Rodeo is working as the team physician for the swimming events. He will also cover the diving meets and water polo matches. When these events are finished, both physicians will be assigned to cover other competitions for the remainder of the Games.
Becoming an Olympic doctor requires no less than five years of dedication and volunteerism to a sport. Both Dr. Hannafin and Dr. Rodeo were competitive athletes before going into medicine, and they look at this opportunity as a way to give back to their favorite events.
"I think you do it because it's the right thing to do, and you benefited from other people doing it for you," said Dr. Hannafin.
In 1984, Dr. Hannafin was a member of the silver medalist lightweight double at the 1984 World Rowing Championships, and she was a three-time gold medalist at the U.S. National Rowing Championships.
Dr. Rodeo was also a top-level athlete, competing on the swimming team at Stanford University for two years, where he also qualified for the NCAA National Championships. He says he got involved with the USA Swimming program to contribute to the sport and people who helped inspire his career.
"Swimming is a great sport; there are good people in the sport, and it's a good way to give back," said Dr. Rodeo. He added, "It's a fun way to take care of the top level athletes, and I learn by doing it."
Before an orthopaedic surgeon or primary care sports medicine doctor can be considered for the title of USOC physician, they must have five years experience providing medical care for an athletic team at the high school, collegiate, or professional level. As chairman of the USA Swimming Sports Committee, Associate Team Physician for the New York Giants, and Medical Consultant for Asphalt Green-a local swimming club in New York City-Dr. Rodeo's worked many hours with athletes outside the hospital. Dr. Hannafin qualified because she has been team physician for the U.S. Rowing team since 1994, an event physician at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, and an Assistant Team Physician for the NY Mets.
As part of the qualifying process, both physicians were invited for two-week unpaid internships at one of three U.S. Olympic Training Centers. Dr. Hannafin and Dr. Rodeo went to Colorado Springs at different points in the year to staff a 24-hour medical clinic and to care for any injured athletes. The internships serve as the opportunity for the USOC to evaluate the doctors and assess their interaction and care of the athletes.
The committee then selects a handful of physicians to provide medical services at international sporting events like the World University Games or the Pan-American Games. Dr. Hannafin and Dr. Rodeo each worked a game last year, and after a final decision by the committee-both received letters in early April that they were headed to Athens.
With just weeks to go, Dr. Hannafin and Dr. Rodeo are arranging for contacts and access to medical facilities in Athens, scoping out any emerging health concerns, making sure the athletes have all their vaccinations, and that they have all the athletes medical records.
"You're almost doing everything but orthopaedics," said Dr. Rodeo, "they'll come to you with everything-to the athletes you're just 'Doc'."
About half of the illnesses they see are travel-related such as colds, asthma, travelers' diarrhea, urinary tract infections, and rashes. Planning for these types of ailments is part of the job, along with making sure they have all the appropriate medical supplies and medications. They will also deal with dehydration and nutritional issues and be asked to supervise the athletes during random drug testing.
"The goal quite honestly is to be totally bored," said Dr. Hannafin.
"If it works well," she said, "you don't want to be taking care of significant medical or orthopaedic issues at the Olympic Games. You want to be there just in case."
Those sports-related injuries are usually related to over-use, according to Dr. Hannafin. The injuries she sees in rowers are often rib stress fractures, tendonitis, impingement syndrome in the shoulder, and some low back pain.
Dr. Rodeo said about half of the swimming injuries are musculoskeletal-mostly shoulder and knee pain. But occasionally he will see injuries that are more severe. For example one of the top American swimmers fractured both elbows exactly 100 days before the opening ceremonies. Now they're doing everything they can to get him back in the water for the Olympic Qualifying meets in July.
"Part of our role is to treat them and rehabilitate them to get them back as fast as possible, while at the same time truly knowing when someone should be disqualified or when they shouldn't compete," said Dr. Rodeo.
The doctors learn a lot from the elite level athletes about how quickly the body can recover, and it gives them an opportunity to observe some of the latest rehabilitation techniques and therapies at work.
"You learn a lot from these athletes, you learn how good it can be, you learn the quickest way you can rehabilitate someone-this is kind of the best case scenario," said Dr. Rodeo.
"You learn from these elite athletes what they can do and obviously you don't push all your patients that way, but you learn what the thresholds of performance are," said Dr. Hannafin.
The experience working with the Olympic athletes ultimately filters back to modify the way both physicians treat their patients at HSS. They say the general principles of treating Olympic athletes and the recreational athletes are the same-both want to get back to their sports as quickly as possible.
"This is a different type of sports medicine experience," said Dr. Rodeo.
And although it requires a significant time commitment, working as an official US Olympic Team physician is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
"There are 100 reasons you can say no, but it's a great experience, a nice honor, a lot of fun, and you learn a lot," said Dr. Rodeo, "and the hospital will be here when you get back."
Summary Prepared by Stephanie Riesenman