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When he was a kid, George A. Paletta Jr., M.D., dreamed of being a profes- sional athlete.
He wasn't dreaming about hitting a home run in the World Series or scoring a touchdown in the Super Bowl as much as he was fantasizing about taking the checkered flag at Indianapolis. He wanted to be a race car driver.
A number of current professional athletes are happy he didn't pursue that dream. Instead, Paletta became the head team physician for the St. Louis Cardinals and a team physician for the St. Louis Rams. He's also an assistant professor and chief of the sports medicine service in the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at the School of Medicine.
He once went to "race school" and drove an Indy car, but most of his driving now involves trips between home, the hospital and the stadium.
"That's the team I grew up rooting for," Paletta explained. "My grandfather used to take me to games when I was 6 or 7 years old. I figure if it can't be the Cardinals, it might as well be the Yankees."
Paletta is the oldest of four children, and he can't remember a time when he wasn't participating in organized sports. Pop Warner football in the fall, something else in winter, baseball in the spring and swimming during summer.
But the sport that changed his life was skiing. As an eighth grader, Paletta broke his leg on a ski slope.
"I had always been interested in becoming a physician, but as with so many of us who
George Paletta, Jr., M.D., and Cardinals trainer Barry Weinberg in the weight room at the team's spring training complex at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Fla.
become doctors, it was personal experience that solidified things for me," he said. "When I broke my leg, I had my first real experience with physicians, other than going in for routine check-ups as a kid. And that really convinced me I wanted to be a doctor."
Everyone else in his family was involved in contracting, construction or engineering. But just as he was passionate about sports, he always had been interested in science and biology. The broken leg took him the rest of the way, and by the time Paletta attended Fox Lane High School, he had a pretty good idea about what he wanted to do with his life.
"I was an intern, and she was a nurse on the first floor I was assigned to. I basically was smitten with her from the get-go," Paletta said. "It took a little while longer for her to notice me." They married in 1990 and have four children.
But even through his studies, training and courting, that old leg injury wasn't finished influencing his life. The orthopaedic surgeon who had treated Paletta was Russell Warren, M.D., a friend of a friend of the family. Warren also was the team physician for the New York Giants and one of the orthopaedic surgeons at Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) in New York. When he became the chairman of orthopaedic surgery at HSS and the Weill Medical College of Cornell University, Warren also became a mentor to Paletta.
"He was really instrumental in my becoming a resident at Hospital for Special Surgery, and when he became chairman, he helped me attain the fellowships and other post-graduate training that I pursued," Paletta said. "Plus, he's the one who really sparked my interest in team care."
Originally, he had wanted to be a pediatrician. Surgery became a new focus during one of his rotations in medical school. Later, he decided on orthopaedic surgery, but he hoped to become a pediatric orthopaedist. It was only during residency with Warren that Paletta decided on sports medicine.
"He did a great job during his residency and later when he returned to Hospital for Special Surgery as a young attending physician," Warren said. "Dr. Paletta was just getting started at the time, but he was very much a quality person who both worked hard and had excellent skills. I think we introduced him to the field of team care, and I'm not at all surprised that he has gone on to be very successful in the field of sports medicine."
During those years at HSS, Paletta got his biggest medical thrill, and it had nothing to do with sports. "It didn't matter to Dr. Warren who the patient was. If you were on service as a medical student, you helped with the case," Paletta said.
So one night while jumping around on stage, a then-32-year-old rock musician sprained his ankle and later was seen by then-medical student, George Paletta. He ordered X-rays, told Bruce Springsteen to rest, ice and elevate the ankle. Then Paletta turned "The Boss" over to his boss.
"Because I function in the world of professional athletes so much, that's a normal environment for me," Paletta said. "I'm used to Mark McGwire and Marshall Faulk and guys like that. But Bruce Springsteen! I remember thinking, 'Wow! How much better can this get?'"
Paletta arrived in St. Louis in 1998, the same summer McGwire set the record for home runs in a season. He also got to meet Springsteen again when the rock star came through St. Louis to watch McGwire, tour the Cardinals clubhouse and throw out the first pitch at Busch Stadium.
These days, Paletta doesn't treat many rock stars, but he spends plenty of time working with professional athletes. In the past few months, he has operated on McGwire, Cardinal pitcher Andy Benes and Rams running back Marshall Faulk, among others.
"The athletes trust him because he is one of those gifted physicians who not only has excellent diagnostic and technical skills but also has a great bedside manner," said Cardinals trainer Barry Weinberg. "Like a musician who not only sings and plays but writes great songs, George is a very special team doctor. I don't want to sound too flowery, but he's so good that it makes me want to work harder to make him proud of me. It's just an ideal situation for us."
That's important when a big part of the job is working with injured professional athletes - they all want to recover as soon as possible. Chronic injuries can strain relationships.
But even when an injury involves a star like McGwire, there is always humor. The future hall-of-famer's patellar tendonitis was big news last season. Thousands of unsolicited calls, e-mails, cards and letters advised Paletta and Weinberg how to get him back into the game. A woman who raised horses went to the vet, claiming that her horse --named "Big Mac"--had tendonitis. The vet prescribed a salve, and she mailed it to the Cardinals. The prescription label named the patient as "Big Mac."
They also heard from a man in North Carolina who had been paging through a 1936 version of the Merck Manual when he decided that the problem was McGwire's diet. "We had him on speakerphone in the training room," Paletta said. "Apparently the manual mentioned a correlation between diet and tendon problems. He was absolutely convinced the injury was caused by oatmeal."
Paletta and Weinberg have collected some of the most "helpful" suggestions and remedies, and they may compile them into an anecdotal report on suggested treatments for patellar tendonitis. In the meantime, they are migrating south for spring training, one of the pleasant parts of working with a big-league baseball team. But it's not the best part.
"The advantage of being a professional team physician is you really have the opportunity to practice sports medicine at the highest level without any fiscal or pragmatic constraints," Paletta said. "The beauty of treating a guy like Mark McGwire is that I can do an operation, and he can spend three or four hours a day doing rehab work --with every resource at his disposal to give him the best shot at a full recovery in the shortest possible time frame. Unfortunately, it's sometimes difficult to do all of that in the regular practice setting."