Surgery: What To Do When Things Go Wrong

For athletes, surgery often feels like failure. A blown elbow ligament. A knee that buckled. A bone that snapped. All that training, time, and passion is gone.

Except it’s not. Surgery is a setback, not an end in most cases. The advances in surgery and rehab in just the twenty years I’ve been covering sports medicine are astounding and the next twenty – wow, I can’t even imagine.

The first step after being diagnosed with a need for any surgery is to come to terms with the injury. There’s all the stages happening quickly – anger, denial, sadness – but none of that is productive. The best thing to do is to flip a switch and make this as much a part of your training as anything else. The comeback starts now!

Once you’ve come to terms with the fact that you will have surgery and will start your comeback, the next big key is the surgery itself. You’ve probably already spoken with your Athletic Trainer and the team doctor. Remember that while they’re a part of your team, they’re not in charge of your recovery. You are. Choosing your surgeon and rehab program are always your choice and one right you need to assert early.

Over the years, many people have come to me and asked for surgical referrals. I’m always happy to do this (though I’m also a bit sad at how many times I do it!), but there’s a general rule you can follow yourself: get the best possible surgeon for your injury.

I follow a general guideline. First, I ask whether the best surgeon is available. You know the names the pros go to — Andrews, ElAttrache, Altchek, Kremchek and a few more for specialties like Watkins for backs or Phillipon for hips. These same doctors are available to you. They’re probably not in your back yard but they’re much more accessible than most consider. They’re also not more expensive. Insurance usually negotiates a rate for a procedure with hospitals, so if these doctors are in your plan, it is an option for you.

If that’s not an option for you, I then look for the best possible surgeon in your area. The doctor that treats the pro or major college teams in your area is usually one of the best around, though always check to see that they actually do surgery. If the team regularly sends their guys elsewhere for surgery, which is common, you should do the same! The best way to find these doctors, if you don’t know, is to call the team’s Athletic Trainer. They’re usually very happy to help.

Another underrated key is the rehab team. Again, this is your choice. Doing it with your team’s medical staff is often the best way to go. They know you already and are aligned with getting you back quickly, but you always have the option to go elsewhere. Consult the experts, ask doctors who they use, and always find the best possible option for you. You’ll spend a lot more time with your rehab team than you will your surgeon, so put as much time into that decision as you do for the surgeon.

The best way to come back from surgery is to do everything the right way. Once you’ve flipped the switch and surgery is needed, start winning at your rehab. Get the right team around you and get ready to come back at one hundred percent.

As always, I’m happy to help anyone who needs assistance with this process. You know how to find me.