Dr. Neal ElAttrache featured in Passan's acclaimed book, The Arm
"That relationship you make with a patient...if that privilege doesn't strike you right in the chest...you're missing the most beautiful thing about what we do."
-- Dr. Neal ElAttrache in Jeff Passan's The Arm
The excerpt below, featuring Dr. Neal ElAttrache, is taken from The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports, by Jeff Passan. Copyright © 2016 by Jeff Passan. Reprinted by arrangement with Jeff Passan:
When Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant blew an Achilles, ElAttrache fixed it. When Dodgers ace Zach Greinke fractured a collarbone, ElAttrache mended it. He performed both of those surgeries the same April day in 2013. Hundreds of millions of dollars ride on his scalpel.
"I always have to take care of my patients and do surgery and do that well. That trumps everything else," ElAttrache said. "That level of intimacy, that relationship you make with a patient, celebrity or athlete or not, is almost like a sacred thing. I tell the guys we're training: if that privilege doesn't strike you right in the chest, to have that given to you, you're missing the most beautiful thing about what we do. It doesn't matter how famous they are. It's that you can really be involved in someone's life."
Orthopedics called him, as it did his father, Selim, who attended Jesuit school in Lebanon as a kid, studied medicine in France, and came to Chicago in the mid-1950s to complete his residency at Northwestern University. He didn't know much English, so he learned by joining a local YMCa for three months. He met a nurse named Vera, got married, graduated, moved to Utah, started a family, and relocated to Pittsburgh, where he took care of the United Mine Workers. Three of his children would grow up to be doctors. Neal was the famous one. When he gave lectures around the country, his father sometimes showed up unannounced and snuck into the back row for a listen.
"My first day in medical school, my first class in anatomy, I knew I had been blessed to find maybe the only thing I'm any good at in my life," ElAttrache said. "I feel very fortunate to have been able to find it. I immediately knew I was home."
More than an hour into the surgery, ElAttrache laced sutures through the holes he had drilled in Coffey's humerus and ulna to help guide the graft and, ultimately, hold it in place. The ends of the sutures stuck out like guitar strings that hadn't been clipped.
ElAttrache conducts his team like he's leading an orchestra, his hand movement signaling exactly where the other half-dozen people should be and what they should be doing. When he opens his hand, his scrub tech, Ken Newmark, knows what instrument ElAttrache needs. When he releases a tourniquet, Leslie Quinn, his nurse, is standing over the wound with a suction instrument. When he readies to drill into a limb, his equipment tech, John Hale, hands him a tool loaded with the proper bit. The movement of the team is balletic.
Passan, Jeff. The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports,. New York: Harper, an Imprint of HarperCollins, 2016. Print.