At first glance, a ballet dancer and a wrestling superstar seem the ultimate juxtaposition. Closer scrutiny reveals the similitude of performance arts and athleticism. And a deeper dive shows even more commonality through relationships with Jeffrey Dugas, MD, an orthopedic surgeon with Andrews Sports Medicine and physician to the Alabama Ballet and the WWE.
Dugas, who specializes in elbow, knee and shoulder surgery, treats injuries across the spectrum from globally renowned wrestling stars to local cheerleaders, high school standouts and average Joes.
An avid baseball fan, Dugas took that passion with him in fellowship training with Dr. James Andrews. Working with a surgeon whose patients include Troy Aikman, Charles Barkley, Roger Clemens, Bo Jackson, Michael Jordan and Jack Nicklaus was undoubtedly a good gig.
It got even better a when Andrews asked Dugas and cohort Lyle Cain, MD to join him in partnership, creating a synergy between the surgeons that has lasted more than two decades. Dugas says their recruitment of like-minded orthopedic specialists who share their work ethic has been a key to excellence.
Dugas, a graduate of Duke Medical School, did his residency at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York and says that training with the best in the world set him on the track for what he is doing.
And what he's doing is revolutionary. Five years ago, he established an alternative elbow surgery, UCL Repair with Internal Brace Construction. The groundbreaking procedure is returning athletes to play far sooner than the Tommy John method. After observing varying degrees of damage in thousands of ligaments during cadaver research, Dugas was confident he could conserve recovery time, but he needed a perfect storm to prove it.
"I needed a high school senior with an injury who didn't have 12 months to get better," Dugas said. "They would either be done playing or would have to have a procedure."
In 2013, 17-year-old Mark Johnson walked into Dugas' exam room. Dugas performed the procedure and Johnson was back on to the baseball diamond to pitch his entire senior year. His total down-time was just five months, less than half the time of the previous gold standard of repair.
"Now we've done over 200 and the results are as good or better than Tommy John," Dugas said. "Over the last four years, some of the larger elbow centers in the country have adopted this method. The sports medicine community looks to us to be leaders and advance the profession. That's our responsibility, and we take that very seriously."
Dugas examines a Vestavia player.
Dugas focuses on quick recovery time for patients from all walks of life. Whether a grandmother or a linebacker, no one has time to be sidelined by an injury.
"Not all of our patients wear numbers on their backs, but we treat everybody with a sense of urgency," Dugas said. "We aren't often dealing with life or death problems -more quality of life issues. We take on the patient's desire to get back to the quality of life they knew."
For Bobbie Nelson, sister of country music icon Willie Nelson, that urgency arose on a Sunday when Dugas got a call to an unconventional exam room -- a tour bus. Dugas took his son, Chris, along for the unexpected medical consult 12 years ago.
"When we got there, Willie was doing paperwork and watching TV," said Dugas, describing Nelson as one of the warmest, most collegial people he's met. "While I was talking to Bobbie about her knee, Willie grabbed Chris and asked if he would like to watch cartoons."
The surreal scene continued to unfold with the arrival of Bob Dylan, and Dugas witnessed the remarkable vignette of his five-year-old sitting between legendary musicians, watching Tom and Jerry.
Dugas takes his brushes with larger-than-life figures in stride. His presence is mandatory each year at WrestleMania, the smack-down Super Bowl of the sport. He treats wrestling celebs such as John Cena, Bray Wyatt, Finn Balor, Seth Rollins, the Undertaker and the female contingent of the arena, the Divas. He also serves as team doctor for USA Cheer, Vestavia Hills High School, Troy State University and the Birmingham Barons
Ushering his patients through recovery gives Dugas ample opportunity to get to know them. "Sports medicine is not just about surgery," Dugas said. "Unlike most other branches of medicine, we have a lot of coaching involved. We guide them through the process for months after we operate. It becomes more of a personal relationship."