She's a pioneer of the field

Doctor: But the Ravens' Leigh Ann Curl, the first female team physician in the National Football League, says ability, not gender, is what matters most to the athletes.

Medicine & Science

November 10, 2003|By David Kohn | David Kohn,SUN STAFF

Sundays in the fall, Leigh Ann Curl has the best seat in the house. From the sidelines, she watches linebacker Ray Lewis blow up ball carriers and tight end Todd Heap run over defenders. But football being what it is - a contest whose essence is violent collision - pleasure gives way to business.

Consider the Baltimore Ravens' Oct. 26 home game against the Denver Broncos.

On the first play, linebacker Bart Scott hurts a knee and limps to the sidelines. Curl - a college basketball star who became the NFL's first female team doctor - examines Scott on the bench, finds no damage and clears him to play.

Later in the first quarter, a defender smashes Heap in the face, sending his helmet flying. Curl spends several minutes with the tight end and determines he has a mild concussion - but is sharp enough to play.

In the second quarter, Denver linebacker John Mobley collapses after a tackle. Broncos doctors tend to him, but Curl comes out to consult. Mobley is carried off the field with a bruised spinal cord.

As often happens, halftime is hectic. "It's a 10-minute frenzy," says Curl, who examines several players, including linebacker Peter Boulware. X-rays of Boulware's battered hand are negative, so he plays the rest of the game.

In the second half, a referee is knocked down and shaken up. Curl jogs out and makes sure he's OK.

It's the perfect job for the 6-foot-2-inch orthopedist, who has immersed herself in sports since she was a child growing up near Pittsburgh.

At 6, she used her 7-year-old sister's birth certificate to join an older girls' softball league. When the Pittsburgh Pirates made the Major League Baseball playoffs, she skipped school so she and her mother could go to the games. A star on the University of Connecticut women's basketball team in the early 1980s, she went on to the Johns Hopkins medical school and became a sports medicine orthopedist.

Although she was the NFL's first female team physician - and the only one until Pittsburgh added a woman to its medical staff this season - the 40-year-old Curl says she never aspired to break gender barriers: "It wasn't `I want to be the first woman to do this.' I do the things I do because I enjoy them."

Curl insists her Ravens patients don't care that she's a woman. She says they're discerning medical consumers. "These guys have been through high school, they've been through top college programs, some of them have been with other teams, and they've had high-quality orthopedic care. So they expect one thing - they expect you to take care of them. If you do that, I don't think gender is a big deal," she says.

Ravens linebacker Ed Hartwell agrees. "It's never an issue. We just want someone who's great at doing the job," he says.

This summer, Curl operated on Hartwell's right shoulder, tightening ligaments and shaving off a piece of bone. Hartwell is satisfied with the results. "If you're running into 300-pound linemen, you'll know if it's not fixed," the 250-pounder says with a laugh.

He also likes Curl's manner with patients. "She's great at explaining stuff," he says. "She breaks it down. I've had some doctors who talk to me as if I were a doctor."

Colleagues also praise her. "To be a woman and have those guys accept you ... takes something. You have to have an ability to communicate - and some toughness," says Pittsburgh Steelers team doctor James P. Bradley, who is president of the NFL Physicians Society.

Curl enjoys treating top athletes. Because they expect the best, she has to stay on top of the latest developments. And she says pro players tend to be more motivated than the average patient to get well.

For pro football players, she says, pain is generally not the main issue - although as a group the Ravens don't seem to have a higher tolerance than her other patients. The real issue is identifying which injuries pose serious risk of permanent, incapacitating damage.

She also has to contend with players' protective agents, who often have their own ideas about treatment - and their own stable of medical specialists. When players decide to have surgery by another doctor, Curl says, she doesn't take offense. She sees herself chiefly as an adviser, laying out options and letting the player choose.

Some critics argue that the game's financial and competitive pressure can warp medical judgment. These observers say team physicians have a conflict of interest because they're paid by owners, who might prefer winning to protecting players.

In recent years, several NFL players - as well as athletes in other sports - have accused team doctors of giving shoddy medical care. Former Miami Dolphins wide receiver O.J. McDuffie sued the team's doctor, claiming that improper treatment of a 1999 toe injury prematurely ended his career.

Curl acknowledges the potential danger but downplays the risk. "You do the right thing by the player," she says, emphasizing that the Ravens' management has never pressured her to permit an injured player to play.

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