Athletes give Union Memorial doctor a hand – and he fixes it

  • Cleveland Indians shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera gets a tour of Dr. Graham's office. Dr. Graham operated on Cabrera's left arm in May after the player was injured in a game against Tampa Bay.
Cleveland Indians shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera gets a tour of… (Baltimore Sun photo Jed…)
June 13, 2010|By Michael Catalini | Baltimore Sun reporter

In a modern-looking office -- filled with sports memorabilia and medical texts written in Latin -- Cleveland Indians shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, his left arm in a cast, sits and waits for his doctor.

Dr. Thomas Graham, head of the Curtis National Hand Center at Union Memorial Hospital and perhaps the nation's most prominent hand specialist, doesn't mean to keep his patient waiting. But he is on the phone with an NFL team, and two minutes before that it was an NHL team that called. In a couple of hours, he'll be on a flight to attend a Philadelphia Flyers playoff game.

Within 60 seconds of seeing Cabrera walk in, he wraps up his phone conversation.

"Asdrubal looks spectacular," Graham tells Lonnie Solof, the Indians' director for medical services, over the phone after inspecting Cabrera's forearm, injured while making a diving stop against the Tampa Bay Rays on May 17.

Now, after spending 10 years in Baltimore and helping, by his estimate, nearly 1,700 professional athletes, Graham, 47, is returning to the Cleveland Clinic -- about a two-hour drive north of where he grew up in East Liverpool, Ohio. He also worked there after his residency, and he'll work there as an executive and surgeon come late June.

When Graham came to Baltimore in 2000, the city already had a reputation as a pre-eminent place to come for hand surgery. After seeing many injuries to upper extremities during World War II, Dr. Raymond Curtis and three colleagues set up the hand center in Baltimore. It opened in 1974.

"We took care of some of the local athletes, but we concentrated on taking care of the population of Baltimore. Dr. Graham brought these athletes and added another dimension to the hand clinic here," said Dr. Shaw Wilgis, who was one of the center's co-founders and Graham's predecessor.

It's that added dimension that might have put the spotlight on Graham -- this year alone, Cleveland Cavaliers center Shaquille O'Neal, golfer Anthony Kim and Boston Bruins center David Krejci sought him out -- and as the team doctor for the Flyers, Graham was on hand as they made a run for the Stanley Cup.

But colleagues say professional athletes are not Graham's only focus.

"Tom has a reputation as a superb clinician and has a great reputation for hand care," said Dr. Andrew Tucker, the head team physician for the Ravens, who has known Graham for nearly 20 years. "It doesn't matter if you're talking about professional athletes, college or high school athletes. He always made himself available -- whether it was my neighbor down the street or a Baltimore Raven."

Dr. Thomas Gill, the medical director for the New England Patriots, Boston Bruins and Boston Red Sox, went to high school with Graham at Shady Side Academy in Pittsburgh and consults with him regularly. But his first encounter with Graham was when Gill was a freshman and Graham was a senior in high school.

"My first impression was from a very different angle. He was a very social guy, a popular kid and a good athlete. I was the freshman and he was the senior, but he didn't throw you into the locker," Gill recalls, chuckling.

Now Gill and Graham catch up about Pittsburgh sports. Growing up in the 1970s, they were "rabid" fans, Gill says, but they also talk frequently about their work.

"He has a very good way with the athletes. He's able to communicate with players but also with their other doctors. He shares my philosophy of putting the player first," Gill said.

If Graham has had some success in building his reputation as a hand surgeon, it's because he has known since he was 10 years old that surgery was the career for him.

He wrote a letter, in crayon or pencil, he says, to prominent heart surgeon Dr. Michael DeBakey, whom he admired. To Graham's surprise, DeBakey, who died in 2008, wrote him back and they carried on a 30-year correspondence.

"When heart surgery began, DeBakey was like a rock star. There was a tape of the first heart surgery, and they showed the beating heart, but I was watching his hands. I thought it was fascinating that this man was operating on the heart with such dexterity. Everyone else was watching the heart. I was watching his hands," Graham said.

During college, Graham, who played squash and golf as an undergraduate, immersed himself in sports medicine, splitting time between Williams College in Massachusetts and the University of Pennsylvania doing research for the U.S. Olympic Committee leading up to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

His professional interest in hand surgery evolved from his interest in sports medicine.

"I was searching for the next challenge, searching to help people at the 100th percentile," Graham said, explaining that the dexterity required to sink a hole-in-one, throw a tight spiral or deliver a fastball is what sets athletes apart.

"You throw at 96 mph and you go to Cooperstown. You throw at 86 mph and you do something else for a living," Graham said.

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