This is a story about how barely known others and a group strangers helped my career. It is also a story about good fortune, seizing the moment, and divine intervention.
Is there someone who entered your life for just a brief moment, yet altered the course of your life? It may be someone whose name you don’t even remember, or even ever knew. It could be someone who introduced you to your spouse, or someone who encouraged you in a particular endeavor. Or, perhaps it someone who simply suggested a book to read that affected you profoundly.
In the span of just a few months a handful of individuals either barely known to me or complete strangers entered my life and changed the path of my career.
I was halfway through my second year as an internal medicine resident and halfway through my residency program at Mount Carmel Medical Center in Columbus, Ohio. It was becoming crunch time to figure out what I was going to do with my career when I finished my medical training. I only knew one thing. I did not want to practice traditional general internal medicine, yet that was exactly what my training was preparing me to do. I saw few options. But, that changed in January of 1988.
The uncertainty about my career was beginning to weigh on my mind and I would be getting married in April. I needed some answers fast.
In January I had my mid-year evaluation with the residency program director. After meeting with him I began to filter through some practice opportunity postings in the residency department when I saw it. It was a posting for a primary care sports medicine fellowship.
I played a lot of sports and had been injured plenty of times and most sports medicine doctors I knew were orthopedic surgeons. While I was aware of a small number of primary care doctors involved in sports medicine, I was not aware of any formal primary care sports medicine training outside the typical one month sports medicine rotation. The sports medicine fellowship posting I saw was at Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis. The fellowship sounded exciting, was right up my alley, piqued my interest, and gave me a glimmer of hope.
The Help of Unknown Others
This is where a chain of encounters begins where barely known others and a group of strangers entered my life changing my career path.
Richard Strauss, MD
I figured if there was one such fellowship program there must be others so I decided to search and find out but I didn’t know exactly where to begin (though in retrospect I supposed I could have called Methodist Hospital and ask them if there were other programs). About a month earlier I saw a book in the hospital library simply called Sports Medicine. The editor was Richard Strauss, MD. According to the book Dr. Strauss was on faculty at The Ohio State University College of Medicine. I found that intriguing because I went to medical school at Ohio State and never heard of him before.
Dr. Strauss seemed like a good place to start my search. Starting with someone who was editor of a sports medicine book seemed like a wise place to begin. After all, you have to start somewhere, and just starting somewhere is the key.
I verified that Dr. Strauss was faculty member at Ohio State and I then called him. It turned out Dr. Strauss was a very prominent physician in the sports medicine world and at that time he was editor-in-chief of the monthly journal, The Physician and Sportsmedicine.
He told me that The Physician and Sportsmedicine published once a year a listing of primary care sports medicine fellowship programs. At that time such programs had only been in existence 3-4 years and they were few and far between. My call to him proved to be stroke of good luck. He explained that there were only ten or so such programs in the country (not even Ohio State had such a fellowship) and some programs did not list their fellowships in The Physician and Sportsmedicine. He directed me to the publication month that contained the list of fellowship programs.
I asked him how I might get some sports medicine experience. He gave me the phone number of Robert Murphy, MD and suggested I contact him as Dr. Murphy supervised a relatively new one month sports medicine rotation at Ohio State. That was my only contact with Dr. Strauss. But, without his assistance little else you are about to read would happen. He died in 2005 at the age of 67.
Robert J. Murphy, MD
I knew of Dr. Murphy. Next to the head football coach at Ohio State Dr. Murphy was probably the most recognizable face on the sidelines of Ohio State football games. Already in his mid-60s he was a very distinguished looking gentleman, and a gentleman he was. Dr. Murphy’s career spanned 41 years overlapping with that of Woody Hayes, Earle Bruce, and part of John Coopers’ tenures as the head football coaches at Ohio State.
I contacted Dr. Murphy the same day I contacted Dr. Strauss. He explained to me that the rotation was reserved for Ohio State medical students and resident physicians at Ohio State. I was doing my residency at another hospital in Columbus. He said I could do the rotation for the upcoming academic year if the spots were not filled by Ohio State medical students or residents but warned me the rotation was becoming very popoular and that the spots typically filled. He suggested I call him back in a couple of months when they would start filling the spots for the next academic year. I called him back a few months later but the situation had not changed, but he again suggested I call him back this time in June. I called back in June, but the spots for the rotation were now filled by Ohio State residents and medical students. I was shut out of the rotation.
In July I attended a sports medicine conference in San Diego in attempts to gain some training and knowledge in sports medicine and with the hope of possibly making some connections in the sports medicine world. My wife of three months accompanied me. At the conference we were provided a list of all the attendees. I combed the list and lo and behold a name stood out – Robert J. Murphy, MD, Head Team Physician The Ohio State University Football Team. I scoured the conference room looking for him as I knew what he looked like and spotted him.
At one of the breaks that first day I approached him and introduced myself to him. We chatted for a few minutes. I did not ask about the sports medicine rotation and we simply talked about the meeting. Later that evening was a dinner reception. My wife and I attended, and as we approached the buffet line Dr. Murphy and his wife just happened to be immediately in front of us. We exchanged introductions and again talked. We probably talked for less than ten minutes as we made our way through the line and in short time his wife and mine seemed to make a connection.
I like to think it was my tenacity, or the fact that I traveled to San Diego to learn more about sports medicine that impressed Dr. Murphy. But, perhaps it was his wife who made the difference. Perhaps she said, “Oh, Bob they’re such a nice couple. Why don’t you help them out and find a way for the boy to do a rotation with you?” Maybe his wife and my wife were the difference. Whatever it was, something happened overnight.
The next day at the conference Dr. Murphy saw me. And this time….he came up to me…..and said, “Joe, when you get back to Columbus give me a call. We’re going to work something out for you.”
I spent a month with Dr. Murphy in September of 1988 – John Cooper’s first year as head coach of Ohio State. Dr. Murphy had Marcus Welby attributes and had a very practical approach to medicine. I learned much from him in a short time. In the 1950s Dr. Murphy was one of the first physicians to write about heat illness in athletes – and one of the first to give players water.
In those days the prevailing thought was athletes should not consume water during practices. One year in the 1950s something like 18 Ohio State football player succumbed to heat illness in one day during summer practice. Dr. Murphy was puzzled as his patients who were farmers could work in the summer heat all day long and not get ill. He began to questioned these farmer-patients and discovered that they drank water liberally while in the fields.
Dr. Murphy began to experiment with the football players literally giving them teaspoons of water at a time to see how they would react, and then a few ounces. Today it is not uncommon for the football team to consume several hundred gallons of water during practice. But, it all started with a teaspoon. What is so obvious today was not then. If you study the history of medicine you find that medicine has been wrong about many things at some point.
Dr. Murphy wrote me a letter of reference that I later learned was influential in my acceptance to the sports medicine fellowship program I would eventually attend. After the rotation I never saw him again in person. A thank you note I sent him was our last communication. He died in 2003 at the age of 80.
Going on simultaneously with all of this I decided I needed to buy some disability and life insurance after getting married and agreed to meet an insurance agent in September. His name is Kurt Gotta. He was driving down from Akron and suggested that we meet at the medical school administration building at Ohio State and asked that my wife attend if possible.
The fact that he was willing to drive two hours to meet me impressed me. As he approached the building I said to myself, “This is a good guy”. He had a confident walk, athletic looking, wearing an olive suit and carrying a brown leather attaché/brief bag. I looked at that attaché and said I need to get myself one of those. I did and still have it. I only use it when I travel now. It’s like a well broken in baseball glove and has been with me throughout my sports medicine journey and career.
After making small talk, Kurt asked me what I was planning to do with my career. I mentioned I was exploring ways to get into sports medicine. He said there was a physician in Akron that he attended college with at Notre Dame and that this physician spent an entire year traveling the country spending one and two months at some of the top sports medicine centers in the country and was heading the new sports medicine department at Akron’s Children Hospital.
I asked him for his name. He said, “His name is Joe Congeni.” I looked at my wife and we both looked at Kurt and I said, “I know Joe Congeni. We grew up in the same town. We went to the same high school. He was two years ahead of me and he lived in the same neighborhood as June (my wife).” We talked some about the coincidence before getting down to business.
Kurt stopped by our apartment a few weeks later to drop off the insurance policies that we bought from him. That was the last I saw or heard from Kurt. When we moved out of state it was necessary to have an insurance agent licensed in the state of Texas (which Kurt was not). He had a note pad he gave me that said, Things I Gotta Do. Pretty clever I thought.
Joe Congeni, MD
After the meeting with Kurt I made a beeline to the hospital and went to the residency program office and got on the WATS line and called Joe Congeni. He remembered my name from high school – not exactly a hard name to remember. Though we knew of each other, I believe this phone call was first we ever spoke to one another. He told me about his experiences at the various sports medicine centers he visited and said this, “If I were you I would go to the Hughston Orthopaedic Clinic. They don’t advertise their program and their deadline for applications is September 30.” It was already the second week in September.
I got off the line with Joe and immediately called the Hughston Orthopaedic Clinic. I spoke to Julie the secretary for Stephen Hunter, MD who was the program director for the fellowship program. Julie told me what I needed to send as part of my application. The next day everything they needed was in the mail. About a week later they contacted me to schedule an interview.
I occasionally run into Joe at meetings, but haven’t seen him in a few years. He recently wrote a book, Cleveland’s Bitter Pill: a Diagnosis of Injured Title Dreams and Die Hard Fans. If you are from Northeastern Ohio you know how tough it is to be a Cleveland sports fan and will want to read his book which chronicles 45 medical mishaps and injuries that have derailed Cleveland sports teams’ championship dreams.
Eric Janssen, MD and Stephen Hunter, MD
Now the Hughston Orthopaedic Clinic is in Columbus, Georgia. It just so happened at Mount Carmel Medical Center where I was doing my residency was an orthopedic surgery resident who grew up in Columbus, Georgia. What are those odds?
His name is Eric Janssen. I asked Eric about the Hughston Orthopaedic Clinic shortly after my discussion with Joe Congeni. He told me about Dr. Hughston and that he was considered the father of orthopedic sports medicine and told me about this fabulous complex the Clinic operated in Columbus, Georgia.
Eric’s final words to me to end our conversation were this, “Joe, this is big time. If you get accepted there you have to go. Doors will open for you.”
I went to my interview at the Hughston Orthopaedic Clinic on October 18. It was a sunny day in the upper 70s and a welcome relief from the gray skies and cooling temperatures in Ohio. I was in awe and amazed by what I saw on the campus of the Hughston Orthopaedic Clinic, and the fact that was in Columbus, Georgia of all places. I said to myself, “Joe and Eric are right. This is the place to be.”
My interview with Dr. Hunter that afternoon was quite interesting. He nearly completely flipped the interview process on me. In fact, it was more a conversation than an interview and went well beyond medicine. First, he welcomed me and thanked me for taking time from my schedule to visit them and wanted to make sure that the morning went well as I toured the complex and met the current fellows and Dr. Hughtson. (That servant-minded attitude was prevalent at the Hughston Clinic).
Side note. I spent about two hours that morning seeing patients with Dr. Hughston and one of his fellows. One of my favorite medical stories happened during the course of that morning as I learned more about the art of medicine from this old country doctor than in all my time in medical school and residency. I will try to weave that story into some future article. Now back to Dr. Hunter.
Dr. Hunter said, “Today is about you learning more about us and deciding whether this is a place you want to spend a year of your life. I don’t feel like I have to ask you any questions. I know enough about you already to make a decision (the letter from Dr. Murphy was influential but there were also little things he paid attention to that were important and I knew I was being observed very closely). Now, what do you want to know about us?”
He seemed more interested in the Clinic impressing me than me impressing them. We should all remember that when we meet people for the first time even when we hold the position of “authority” or “expert”. I longed felt you can tell more about someone by the questions they ask than the answers they give. Maybe Dr. Hunter felt the same.
Well, I did get accepted to the Hughston Orthopaedic Clinic and that is where I completed my sports medicine fellowship. In fact, it was the only program that accepted me save one. This other program was in Columbus, Ohio and I strongly considered going there for several reasons, but Eric’s words kept entering my mind. “Joe, doors will open for you.” Those words in the end made my decision.
Eric later completed his own sports medicine fellowship, and guess where? The Hughston Orthopaedic Clinic. I have not seen Eric since I completed my residency at Mount Carmel Medical Center. He now lives and practices in Huntsville, Alabama and as I understand has a gaggle of kids.
In 2003 while running on the track on the Hughston Clinic campus Dr. Hunter collapsed and died. He was just 61 years old. He was an exceptional human being and Dr. Hughston’s right and man. Dr. Hughston died in 2004 at the age of 87. He was a “country doctor” who built (with much help from others) the leading sports medicine and orthopaedic center of its time – largely through sheer grit and determination.
Hughston Orthopaedic Clinic: Opening the Doors
I most likely would have never made it to the Cooper Clinic had I not completed by sports medicine fellowship at the Hughston Orthopaedic Clinic. Dr. Hughston and Dr. Cooper were contemporaries each having built incredible complexes though in different areas of medicine and shared a mutual respect. The Cooper Clinic had specifically contacted the Hughston Clinic to recruit a physician to join them. That physician eventually became me. I wrote about the lessons I have learned from both of these institutions in this The Magic of Thinking Big: Lessons from Two Giants in Medicine.
Keep on Keeping On
Dr, Hughston had several sayings. One of them was simply “keep on keeping on”. It had several meanings depending on the situation ranging from “stay the course” to “don’t give up” to “stay active and keep moving”.
My career would have turned out completely different without the chain events brought about by this group of men – a group of barely known others and strangers, who with the exception of Joe Congeni, entered my life briefly and have left. It’s hard to imagine that my career would have been better if not for them. And, I am grateful for them.
Here is something interesting. Have you ever tried to reach a doctor on the phone? If you have you probably know it is not easy. Every doctor I called during this sequence of events I was able to reach on my very first attempt.
Much of what I just shared is too coincidental to be coincidental and I believe divine intervention played a role. It usually does when you follow your heart, pursue, persevere, take action, follow through, and keep taking the next step, in other words – “keep on keeping on”.
Never underestimate the words and actions of a group strangers or unknown others. And, don’t be afraid to ask for their help. Finally, remember good things eventually happen to those who “keep on keeping on.”