Caring for the competitive spirit: Orthopedic surgeon treats athletes at all levels of play

Olympic skier Julia Mancuso celebrates with Dr. Peter Van Eenenaam after she won the Super G races at the 2007 World Cup in Cortina, Italy. Special to NNY Business

The number of sports injuries suffered by north country athletes has increased in recent years, but it’s “a reflection of what’s happening everywhere as youngsters become more competitive at an earlier age,” said Dr. Peter Van Eenenaam, director of sports medicine at North County Orthopaedic Group.

“We are seeing an increasing number of knee and shoulder injuries than in past years,” Dr. Van Eenenaam said.

Dr. Van Eenenaam is an orthopedic surgeon who is familiar with sports injuries at all levels of competition.

A graduate of the Harvard Orthopedic Surgery Residency Program, Dr. Van Eenenaam received orthopedic training at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and advanced sports medicine training at the Steadman Hawkins Clinic in Vail, Colo.

During his time in Colorado, Dr. Van Eenenaam was part of a team of physicians who performed surgery on Joe Montana, the Hall of Fame quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs who played in numerous Super Bowl games.

“That was very memorable,” said Dr. Van Eenenaam, who was completing a fellowship in orthopedic surgery at the time he joined the team of physicians treating the famous pro football player.

Dr. Van Eenenaam and Dr. Michael Wainberg, also a physician with North Country Orthopaedic Group, were chosen from a pool of 700 applicants to provide medical care to athletes competing in the Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City in 2002.

They were selected by the Salt Lake Olympic Organizing Committee after extensive screenings of their medical backgrounds, reference and security checks. The two physicians were assigned to treat athletes at the Olympic Sports Medicine Clinic.

Since 1996, Dr. Van Eenenaam has also provided medical care to members of the U.S. Women’s Alpine Ski Team during their World Cup competitions in Sweden, Germany, and Austria.

Dr. Van Eenenaam was selected by the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, the sanctioning federation for Olympic-eligible athletes in skiing and snowboarding, to cover the elite-level camps and competitions.

In recent years, Dr. Van Eenenaam has worked as a consulting physician for the Lake Placid Iron Man Triathlon.

“We’re seeing older athletes working to stay fit and, in some cases, to compete,” he said. “That can bring people in here with overuse injuries or stress fractures. We’re seeing a lot more of that type of injury in this age group.”

One type of injury that has increased over the years in younger athletes is Anterior Cruciate Ligament injury, a knee injury that is more common among teenage girls, he said.

“It’s almost an epidemic,” Dr. Van Eenenaam said. “It occurs eight times more often in females than males.”

Nobody seems to have pinpointed the exact reason why it’s more common in females, but it probably has to do with the “mechanics and anatomy of females, the difference in their quad and hamstring structure, and certain hormones which can weaken ligaments,” he said.

That type of injury typically requires surgery and rehabilitation, he said. While it’s seen in athletes who play basketball, volleyball and lacrosse, it seems most common among soccer players, Dr. Van Eenenaam said.

Many members of the U.S. Women’s Alpine Ski team, however, had scars on their knees from prior ACL surgeries, he noted.

Concussions have also been increasing among young athletes, and that has “shifted our understanding of how serious we need to take head injuries,” Dr. Van Eenenaam said.

“Everyone seems more aware, about the seriousness of head injuries — including the coaches and the parents,” he said.

Damage to a ligament in the elbow is seen more often among college and professional baseball players. The surgery to treat it was nicknamed “Tommy John Surgery” after the retired famous major league pitcher.

The surgery involves replacing a damaged ligament in the elbow with a tendon from elsewhere in the body. Although the incidence of this type of injury seems to be slowly increasing among high school athletes, it’s still primarily found among college and professional players, Dr. Van Eenenaam said.

It doesn’t appear to be a big issue in the north county yet, but cases are starting to increase nationwide as youth become more competitive in the sport of baseball, he said.

Ironically, Dr. Van Eenenaam met with Tommy John several months ago when he was visiting the Watertown area and requested a physical therapy consult. The retired pitcher has friends in the Watertown area who referred him to Dr. Van Eenenaam.

“He was a great guy, very friendly,” Dr. Van Eenenaam said.

Although Dr. Van Eenenaam has treated some well-known sports figures during his career, it was his desire to raise a family and practice medicine in his hometown that brought him back to Watertown more than 15 years ago.

At that time, he joined his father, Dr. David Van Eenenaam, and several other physicians at the North Country Orthopaedic Group, 1571 Washington St.

“I’ve always like the area,” said Dr. Van Eenenaam, a 1979 graduate of Watertown High School who was also a ski racer in his youth. “I really liked the idea of practicing with my Dad [Dr. David Van Eenenaam].”

Dr. Van Eenenaam has helped to develop the sports medicine program at the North Country Orthopaedic group, which offers coordinated care for injured athletes, from initial treatment to surgery and physical therapy if needed.

“It’s a uniform treatment program with set protocols” on treating sports injuries, said Dr. Van Eenenaam, who serves as the director of sports medicine at the practice.

While it remains a controversial issue as to how much is too much competition for young athletes, “the great majority of people we treat can continue to play sports successfully,” he said.

Dr. Van Eenenaam and his wife, Dacia, have two children, Sarah, a student at SUNY Geneseo, and David, a student at Watertown High School.

He also volunteers his time to attend home football games at Watertown High School and offers his services if needed, a tradition of his father that he has continued.

“Both Dr. Van Eenenaam and his father have worked our sidelines and been a great resource to the district for more than 25 years,” said Michael A. Lennox, director of health, physical education and athletics for Watertown City School District.

“They have a wealth of knowledge and have really provided a safety net for the kids and coaches on both teams,” he added.

Dr. Van Eenenaam has also been present at his children’s sporting events in the district for the past several years, and has made himself available to other parents who have questions about sports injuries and prevention, Mr. Lennox said.

“He’s all about the kids,” Mr. Lennox said. “He volunteers his time for the district.”

While individual coaches work with their players on injury prevention, the Watertown City School District also employs a full-time fitness center director, Eric Kendrew, who designs individual work-outs for athletes looking to stay in top condition during their off seasons.

“He shows them specific exercises that are particular for their sport,” said Mr. Lennox. “He also incorporates a nutrition piece. The kids really utilize his advice.”

A strong physical conditioning program can help to prevent sports-related injuries, Mr. Lennox said.

Mr. Kendrew can help any student develop a fitness or conditioning program, regardless of whether the student plays on a sports team, Mr. Lennox said.

Norah Machia is a freelance writer who lives in Watertown. She is a 20-year veteran journalist and former Watertown Daily Times reporter. Contact her at norahmachia@gmail.com.