The Expatriated Patriots Fan: Views and News from outside New England.
A little over a year ago, in late July 2013, I blew out my knee. My company has an onsite gym with a nice basketball court, and I play regularly. (Or did, and hope to again) Unfortunately I often play against guys half my age, right out of college even, and that might have lead
me to push myself a bit. Anyway, whatever the cause, while playing, I hyper-extended my left knee while defending a fast break, and tore my ACL and meniscus.
I had surgery to replace my ACL (Anterior Cruciate Ligament, one of the major ligaments holding the knee together) that September and a touch up surgery on my meniscus in February of 2014.
I bring this up as it was what lead to this article in two ways. One way is that due to my decreased physical activity, I was looking for a way to fill up some of my time, and as a result I submitted a sample column to this website. No one was more surprised than I when it was accepted and I was allowed to become a contributor.
The other, and more important reason is that the injury caused me to have a number of meetings with my orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Geoffrey Higgs.
Dr Higgs is an accomplished physician and surgeon, an U.S Army veteran, and most importantly, (for the purposes of this article) a former team physician for the New England Patriots.
I discovered this because he had a small display case in one of his offices with a Patriots helmet, and a thank-you plaque from the team.
This was nice, both because I am a Patriots fan, and because I assumed the NFL would require only the best doctors for their team doctors. But I didn’t think much of it until the announcement that the Patriots would be conducting joint practices with the Redskins. At that point, I realized this might be a great opportunity to find out how one becomes a physician for an NFL team, and share that info with the other fans at Musketfire.
Dr. Geoffrey Higgs, currently of Advanced Orthopaedics in Richmond Virginia was the Team Physician for the New England Patriots from 1998 to 2000, overlapping with Pete Carol’s time in New England. But what did it take to get to that spot, and what is it like being a doctor for an NFL team?
Dr. Higgs’s undergraduate degree is in Systems Engineering from the University of Virginia. After graduation, he even worked a year as an engineer, but ultimately decided that was not the career path for him.
In college, he had played football, and even now looks fit enough as though he could suit up and take the field as a linebacker. While playing though, he suffered a serious ankle injury, and had his ankle surgically repaired. It so happened that the doctor who did the surgery was the Team Physician for the Washington Redskins at the time. Dr. Higgs was so impressed with the doctor’s competence, and his compassion in treating the injury, that it left him with a profound desire to emulate the man.
So, after concluding that engineering wasn’t for him, he applied to Medical School and was accepted into Columbia University. After completing med school, he was accepted into a 6 year, academic orthopedic surgery residency program, also at Columbia.
To finance his way through medical school, Dr. Higgs utilized a military scholarship, where the U.S. Army covered tuition and books, as well as a $600 a month stipend, in return of service as a doctor in the U.S. Army Medical Corp after graduation. While this is a great way to cover educational costs and serve your country as well, the $600 a month stipend did not go far in New York City, as one might imagine. Living in squalid conditions in Harlem for most of med school, when he went to the University of California (San Diego) for a year to study with a prominent researcher of ligament and joint replacements he had to resort to living off peoples’ couches for as long as they would have him.
After his year in California, he returned to Columbia, where he was elected Chief Resident. He also received awards for Outstanding Physician and the Pediatric Orthopaedic Society of New York’s Best Resident Research Award.
Also, while back at Columbia, a friend of Dr. Higgs (also a resident) got a position as a stadium physician at Yankee Stadium. Due to the workload, the friend recruited 3 other residents, including Dr. Higgs, to help him. This was Dr. Higgs first exposure to working with professional athletes. (And a chance to bring in some extra money to supplement his military stipend) Due to their work at Yankee Stadium, they were asked to assume a similar role at Madison Square Garden, home of the New York Nicks and the New York Rangers.
After completion of his residency, Dr. Higgs entered the U.S. Army and was stationed first in Korea, where he served as an Orthopedic Physician for all in country U.S forces. While there, continued his work in Sports medicine by working with various base teams, as well as covering the All World Taekwondo team. Additionally, all South Korean men have to server a two year term in either the military or police force when they turn 18. They are called Katusas and they get there medical care from the U.S, so Dr. Higgs assisted there as well.
From Korea, he was transferred to Germany for 3 years where he served as Assistant Chief of Orthopaedic Surgery at the U.S. Army Hospital in Heidelberg, German. From there, he was deployed to during the Bosnian war as Chief of Orthopaedic Surgery at the 67th U.S. Army Combat Support Hospital (Deployed) in Taszar, Hungary.
Dr. Higgs describes his time in the service as a great opportunity to serve the men and woman of the United States Armed Forces, and to have gained further experience in his field. While serving in the U.S. Army, Dr. Higgs received the Meritorious Service Medal and the Army Commendation Medal, and twice received the Overseas Service Medal.
Leaving the service as a Major, he next accepted a fellowship in Orthopaedic Sports Medicine and Shoulder Surgery at Harvard/Massachusetts General Hospital. While in the Boston area, Dr. Higgs developed relationships with many of the sports teams in the area, eventually serving as Team Physician for Harvard University Athletic Teams, the New England Patriots Professional Football Team, the Boston Bruins Professional Hockey Team, and the New England Revolution Professional Soccer Team.
But we are all football fans here, and it’s the Patriots we want to hear most about…
It has been awhile since Dr. Higgs has worked with the Patriots, and he certainly could not discuss players by name anyway. But I was able to discuss with him some of the differences with working with professional athletes versus average patients, as well as what it is like to be a team doctor in general.
On working with Professional athletes, “Technically, in the operating room, it is the same. The operation is no different. However, there is a tremendous expectation from the athlete to return to full performance level. So there can be a psychological and emotional component to the care as well.”
“Additionally, some injuries just will never allow recovery to previous performance level. For example, it’s well documented that with rotator cuff injuries in throwing athletes, 40% never achieve the same level of performance.”
One significant difference is the drive and time that pro athletes can put into their post-operative recoveries. It was well documented in the media that Robert Griffin spent 8 to 10 hours a day in rehab after his ACL repair. Dr. Higgs says very few nonprofessional athletes have the time, ability or support structure to put in that type of effort. As I consider my situation, where work, and insurance limited me to 6 hours a week (versus Griffin’s 8 hours a day) I realize what a big difference that is.
Of course, some athletes are just tremendously genetically blessed as well. The doctor related to me a time with the Patriots where he performed arthroscopic surgery on both of a player’s knees on a weekend. Three days later, he noticed that same player on the field, and said he had not cleared him to practice. So he went over and examined him. He said the player had almost no swelling, full range of motion, and his scars looked like they were 3 weeks old, not 3 days old. The player went on to play in an NFL game that weekend, one week after having surgery on both knees! Looking at my still limited knee a year after my ACL surgery (which granted, is much more severe than a “standard” scoping) I realize how blessed that player was.
As for what it is like being a team physician… “During the season, it is very demanding on your time. You have to check in every day, evaluate and diagnose injuries, and devise treatment plans.” “Home games aren’t so bad, but away games can be tough. You may travel with the team to say, a game at 4:05 in the afternoon in San Diego, have to take the red eye back, then see 40 patients the next day.”
Plus, team physician isn’t a position that pays very well according to Dr. Higgs. Doctors typically take these positions for “the love, enjoyment and thrill of the game he says, and for the privilege of association with world class athletes”.
Much of the work load for a team doctor is simple sprains and strains I am told. However, there are obviously the occasional more severe injury, such as joint damage or ligament tears. Occasionally there are even catastrophic injuries to the head or neck requiring urgent treatment, and which can be really scary. Dr. Higgs was fortunate enough to not encounter any of these at the professional level, but unfortunately has had to treat some at the high school level, where he know volunteers his time. (And how fortunate is a high school to have a doctor of this caliber available in case of such an incident)
Of his time with the Patriots, Dr. Higgs says what impressed him most was seeing “From the ownership, the genuine love for and interest in the players that is purely generated out of thoughtfulness”
After completing his fellowship at Harvard and Mass General, Dr. Higgs had offers from both the University of Colorado and University of Oregon to be their Chief of Sports medicine. However, the pace of professional sports medicine was taking its toll, and in deference to his family, and after consulting with the family of a respected colleague, he chose to move back to Virginia and open up a private practice.
Now with Advanced Orthopaedics in Richmond Virginia, Dr. Higgs continues to stay active in sports medicine. In addition to treating aging athletes like this author, he volunteers a great deal of time for low income high school sports programs. Without his efforts, these schools would certainly not have medical care of this caliber available to them, maybe none at all at the games. He is also the Chief Team Physician for the Richmond Raiders Professional Arena Football Team, and has been the Chief Team Physician for each Professional Arena Football Team in Richmond including The Richmond Revolution, The Richmond Bandits and The Richmond Speed. He also serves as the team physician for Henrico High School and Highland Springs High School Athletic Programs, as a Team Physician for the Richmond Rhythm IBL Basketball team, as the Head Team Physician for the Virginia High School Football State Championships while they were played in Richmond, and as the Head Team Physician for the East West College Football All-Star Games.
And recently, with the transition of the Washington Redskins training camp to Richmond, he has re-affiliated with the NFL when asked to help provide medical coverage at their training camp.
They all have been fortunate to have access to such a highly trained physician, much as I have been fortunate as well. It is possible, likely even, that they, like I, had no idea of the years of work and training that goes into being a sports medicine doctor. I know all med school is hard, but until I had the chance to conduct this interview, I didn’t realize the depth of effort and achievement represented by Dr. Higgs.
Richmond is very fortunate to have such a doctor serving its community. And so am I.