Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2008

Doctor keeps top athletes in the game

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Charles E. Shoemaker/The Gazette
Dr. James Gilbert works at Suburban Hospital's Human Motion Institute in Bethesda. Gilbert is a medical consultant to the U.S. men's soccer team as well as Duke University athletics and the Professional Bull Riders Association.

Although he is a medical consultant for world-class athletes like members of the U.S. men's soccer squads, sometimes Dr. James Gilbert of Suburban Hospital has to worry about keeping himself in one piece.

As a consulting physician for the Professional Bull Riders Association, Gilbert was once in the ring as the doctor on-duty during a competition in Landover when a Brahma bull named Cowabunga, after discarding a cowboy from his back, charged straight for Gilbert.

He leaped up the railing to escape, but aggravated a tear in his shoulder and nearly fell back onto Cowabunga's horns. Gilbert just managed to lunge over the top of the fence, and collapsed in a heap on the safe side of the ring. He missed getting impaled, but couldn't avoid the laughter of nearby cowboys.

"I was hurt more than the bull rider," he said, laughing.

A Bethesda native who attended Landon School, Gilbert, 45, tries to make sure athletes and non-athletes alike recover safely and quickly from their own injuries during his work at the Human Motion Institute at the hospital as an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist.

During his travels around the world with America's top soccer players for the past 10 years, from Argentina and Jamaica to Finland and Italy, Gilbert's real goal for the athletes under his care is even loftier, since their livelihoods are on the line.

"You really want to get them back better than they were before," said Gilbert, who now lives in Potomac.

Although he wasn't able to make the trip with the U.S. Olympic squad to Beijing, Gilbert has been in touch with one of the trainers, Randy Rocha, and is well aware of the medical preparations and training the athletes have had to go through.

To deal with the foreign conditions and concerns about smog and air pollution in Beijing, Gilbert said it was crucial for the men's team (which was eliminated by Nigeria on Aug. 13) to hydrate properly and keep in peak condition, in addition to preventing asthma and keeping bronchodilators on hand.

"I've got to go by the philosophy that I will have nothing available at … the site," he said.

Medical personnel traveling with the team have several concerns when playing in international venues. They have to be aware of local emergency medical systems, go through practice runs of emergency situations, and prevent athletes from ingesting common cold medications that could cause them to fail drug tests. There are immunizations and altitude adjustments to take care of. Even food is a constant worry.

"We don't have the local people cook it. We cook it ourselves," he said.

There are security concerns as well, some merely irritating and others serious. Gilbert said in foreign countries people sometimes ring up the athletes' rooms late at night to disrupt their sleep before a match the next day.

But he was also with the U.S. team in Trinidad and Tobago when the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks occurred, and a detachment of the country's marines came to guard the team's hotel for fear of further attacks on Americans.

But, in general, Gilbert loves being around the team and developing their trust, which is crucial when acute injuries like open fractures occur.

"You've got to be comfortable with the players, and they've got to be comfortable with you," said Gilbert, who also is a consultant for the D.C. United soccer team and Duke University athletics.

When Gilbert travels abroad, it isn't always because of his medical expertise and love of soccer. About five years ago, he started the Bear Hug Foundation with fellow Landon School graduates. The organization provides health care services to poor villages in Central and South America.

The foundation recently built a full medical and dental care facility for a village in El Salvador. One of the next projects is to build a mobile medical lab. Gilbert hopes more members of the Bethesda community get behind the foundation.

"It's really starting to take off," he said.