Grateful Steadys say thanks to the man who gave their lives back
VAIL — The Grateful Steadys know each other on sight — not by their eyes, by their knees.
For what might be the only time, many of them gathered in one place earlier this month to thank Dr. Richard Steadman, who put them back together and trained more than 200 other surgeons to do the same.
Ski team’s greatest gift
John McMurtry’s 1984 U.S. women’s Olympic alpine team was the most successful American squad ever.
“The greatest gift that the U.S. Ski Team has given the world is Dr. Richard Steadman,” said McMurtry, an Aspen High School graduate.
The gathering was like a class reunion. There’s three-time Olympian Cindy Nelson (11 surgeries: nine knees, two ankles, seven screws) and two-time Olympian Andy Mill (seven spinal compression and neck fractures, four knee surgeries).
They were there with Olympian Christin Cooper (ankle fracture, tibial plateau fracture and bone graft), two-time Olympian Edie Thys Morgan (three ACL reconstructions, assorted broken limbs) and Marc Girardelli, one of history’s most successful World Cup racers.
Girardelli is so grateful to Steadman that he flew from Europe to be in Beaver Creek for the event.
Girardelli was a kid and had one World Cup win to his credit when he basically tore his leg off. Even Steadman called the injury the worst he had ever seen.
Steadman put him back together, and Girardelli was racing the next season. He finished his distinguished career with five overall World Cup titles as well as two Olympic and 11 World Championship medals.
“As great as Richard Steadman is as a doctor and innovator, he’s a better person,” said Mill, who splits his time between Aspen and championship tarpon fishing in Florida. “That’s what has attracted so many people from all over the world to this.”
Jolly good fellows
Dr. Mininder Kocher was a Steadman Fellow in 1999-2000.
“It was the most prestigious sports medicine sports fellowship program in the country,” Kocher said.
Like most of the Grateful Steadys, Kocher has done well since then: professor of orthopaedic surgery at Harvard Medical School; associate director, Division of Sports Medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital.
To become a sports medicine fellow, you have to finish at the top of your college class, complete medical school, then an orthopaedic surgery residency for five or six years and then a fellowship for a year.
Kocher and some other Steadman alums were counting one day and figured Steadman has trained more than 200 fellows.
“When you’re a fellow you’re like an apprentice, working with a master and learning their techniques,” Kocher said.
Steadman Standard Time
The event started from two grassroots groups: athletes Steadman treated and surgeons he trained.
Steadman treats them all the same, no matter who they are, “with a lot of attention and compassion,” Kocher said.
Stroll slowly down the hall of the Steadman Philippon Research Institute, see the professional jerseys and read the names. Dan Marino’s on that wall. So is John Elway, along with several of the world’s greatest soccer, football and basketball players.
Steadman treated us like them, Kocher said.
“Professional athletes are on the wall, but he treated the weekend warriors, the business guys and the children like that as well. To me that’s a very powerful lesson,” Kocher said.
Steadman worked on an estimated 22,000 people during his four-decade career. They all had two things in common: He made them feel like they were his most important patients, because they were; and he was never on schedule.
“We used to call it Steadman Standard Time,” Cooper said, laughing. “You’d wait because he’d spend so much time with each person. He was never on schedule, ever. But he’d do the same thing with you when it was your turn.”
Steadman’s human legacy is obvious. Stroll down that research institute hallway and look around the waiting room. Steadman’s medical legacy changed lives, Kocher said.
The three biggest innovations:
Surgical techniques. Steadman pioneered things like the microfracture technique.
Focus on outcomes. Steadman started doing that decades ago. Now it’s a buzzword.
Rehab. Back in the day, sports medicine consisted of operations and a plaster cast — a 6-inch scar and six-week cast. Steadman introduced a continuous passive motion machine, used as soon as possible after patients left the operating room.
The results are astounding.
Phil Mahre shattered his ankle in Lake Placid, leaving 20 pieces floating around. Seven screws, a plate and one year later he was an Olympic silver medalist.
A young Martina Navratilova was in the Steadman clinic to get what passes for routine maintenance in her business. She asked Dr. Steadman how much longer he thought she could play. She thought she had three good years, maybe. She played another 16.
While they rehabbed, Steadman sometimes put up U.S. Ski Team patients in his Lake Tahoe house with his family.
Ski racers look perfectly normal.
They drove his cars and occasionally wrecked some because … well … ski racers.
They water-skied on Lake Tahoe, skiing on their good leg, the one Steadman had not just repaired. There was the time they sank his boat.
“It’s never about him. It’s always about the work and the patients,” said Cooper, who makes her home in Aspen. “It’s what makes him extraordinary as a human and as a doctor. World class athletes tend to be pretty hard-charging people. So does Steady, but he’s also soft.”
From the mid-1970s until his retirement, almost all the medals, titles and World Cup winners came through his clinic.
It wasn’t without some controversy. The treatment was much more aggressive than many in the medical community were ready to accept.
Revolutions come in small steps. Steadman would encourage his patients to “take a little step here and if there’s no pain we’ll take another.”
Girardelli was racing a year after his horrific injury — a recovery speed never before thought possible. Nelson had 13 surgeries in her 14-year World Cup career, and never missed an entire season.
“Many of our injuries were thought to be career-ending, but they weren’t,” Cooper said. “This guy gave us our lives and careers. We would not have had the success we did without him.”
Nelson was Vail’s director of skiing when George Gillett bought Vail and Beaver Creek.
Over her 14-year World Cup career, Nelson suffered 13 injuries. Steadman operated on her 11 times while he still made his home in the Lake Tahoe area.
So when Gillett tore his ACL he asked Nelson about that doctor who kept putting her back together.
Steadman put Gillett back together, and Gillett charmed Steadman and his family all the way from Lake Tahoe to Vail. That was 1990.
“Dr. Steadman was a pioneer of orthopedics and sports medicine. He improved the lives of countless athletes and everyday people during his career. His legacy continues through the work of the world-renowned clinic and research institute that carry his name,” said Doris Kirchner, president and CEO of Vail Valley Medical Center.
Thank you, at last
The Grateful Steadys thank-you fest was Thys Morgan’s idea.
She mentioned it to a few friends, who mentioned it to a few others.
Morgan had three reconstructions while she was racing. Now she runs marathons and does about anything else she wants.
“He not only changed our athletic careers, he changed our lives,” Morgan said.
When the “Core Four” — Nelson, Cooper, Morgan and Mill — started putting the tribute together a year ago, they didn’t know what kind of response they’d get.
Everyone they talked to couldn’t do enough, then did that and more. It got really serious when Mill commissioned a really expensive bronze sculpture from legendary artist Bruce Wolfe.
“It’s getting everyone together to say thank you for what you’ve done for our sport. It has never happened,” Cooper said.
Like so many other things surrounding Steadman, now it has.