5 Things I Learned From Practicing Sports Medicine with Richard Steadman at the Steadman-Hawkins Clinic

5 Things I Learned From Practicing Sports Medicine with Richard Steadman at the Steadman-Hawkins Clinic

The Steadman-Hawkins Clinic of Vail in the 1990’s was one of the iconic sports medicine practices in the world.  I was privileged to learn and practice with two of the true giants of sports medicine, Dr. Richard Steadman and Dr. Richard Hawkins.

I learned some invaluable things from both of these great men. 

5 Things I Learned From Practicing Sports Medicine with Richard Steadman

1. Listen to your patient … always.

One of the first things you learn in medical school is to how to direct the first interview with your patient, and "keep them on track". 

Richard did the exact opposite. 

I can’t tell you how many times that we would all be amazed and surprised as he would sit there and let people go on and on and on...often with stories that had nothing to do with their injury.

Richard would just calmly listen and let them chatter until they were finished, seemingly unworried about speaking at all himself. We’d hear stories from the patient about their family, or the dog, or whatever other seemingly trivial factoid they might have.

Finally, after they were done, Richard would say “OK. So here’s how we are going to make you better.” 

It was a brilliant and inspiring way to deal with the patient. Dr. Steadman recognized their own unique humanity, rather than seeing them as just another patient to see in an arduous day.  

That philosophy is something I have always tried my hardest to emulate and embody.

2. A stiff knee is much worse than an unstable knee.

Scar tissue was easily the biggest evil in Richard's world.  He taught us all that we needed to get the knee moving as quickly as possible after injury & surgery. 

When he started pioneering this groundbreaking philosophy, the world of sports medicine was like a closed book. The norm after ACL surgery was 6 weeks in a long leg cast. 

Dr. Steadman transformed the sports medicine world, and taught me every day that motion was the key to success and preventing scar tissue

Richard would much rather face a patient with a persistently loose knee than one that was overly stiff secondary to surgery.  Scar tissue can compress the cartilage on the joint surface causing it to break down, which is simply called arthritis. That's bad news, and that's what Dr. Steadman wanted to avoid whenever possible.

3. Surround yourself with great people

Richard told the story too many times to count about how he came to Vail.  He had his team in Lake Tahoe of Crystal, Shirley (both nurses) Topper, and JA (ATC).  He wanted them all to come with him!

He was so vehement about them accompanying him, he stated that if any one of them didn’t want to go, then he would not go.  Shirley ended up staying with him for 30 years.  Topper, after heading up Howard Head Sports Medicine, started Axis Physical Therapy here in Vail. (To this day, Topper is still one of my very best friends.)

I'll never forget the point: to succeed, you surround yourself with great people.  

Dr. Steadman chose to work with the best of the best, and I have tried to do the same. I think the team that I work with is what has driven my own success, and I'm proud to have taken this lesson to heart.

No matter what line of work you're in, surround yourself with good people.

4. Never (EVER!) feed into negativity about the patient’s past care.

Many of us are fortunate to run referral practices, meaning many of our patients have already had treatment elsewhere before seeing us.  Unfortunately, in the highly-specialized world of sports medicine, surgery doesn’t always work out exactly the way we would like. 

Richard Steadman taught me to help the patient focus on how we were going to help get them better, rather than anything in the past. It's my job to get people back doing the things they love, and starting in the present moment is the best way to do that. What may have happened in the past is only my business inasmuch it helps me to get you back to living the active lifestyle you want to live.

5. Never be afraid to ask for help

I am 25 years younger than Richard Steadman. I was 32 when I trained under him as a Sports Medicine Fellow, and 33 when I began practicing with him full time.  For 18 years he would ask me to scrub in on every difficult surgery he had.  

I felt very grateful to gain this experience with an icon while being able to perform these complicated procedures on our patients togetherFrom revision ACL surgeries, to PCL and posterolateral reconstructions, and especially joint realignment osteotomies, I was there for all of the tough ones.  I feel so privileged to have learned from one of the true innovators of sports medicine, and the reason I was able to do that is because Dr. Steadman trusted me to help him when he needed it. 

I know what I know, and I know when to ask for help. And I learned this from Richard Steadman.

Thanks, Doc. 

Dr. Bill Sterett, Vail, Colorado


Note: I should mention that (like a lot of mentor/mentee relationships) Dr. Steadman and I, unfortunately, had a falling out toward the end of Richard's career.  But after 18 years together, we had a great run and, in fact, nobody practiced with Dr. Steadman for a longer period of time than myself. Despite the fact that our relationship hit a rocky patch, I will always be grateful for the time and good work we shared together. I'm blessed to now practice at Vail/Summit Orthopaedics with a group of some of the most talented and dedicated surgeons in the country.

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