Pioneering Ravens doctor at the top of her game

Leigh Ann Curl first female head orthopedic surgeon in NFL

  • Dr. Leigh Ann Curl assists Todd Heap to the sidelines after his helmet-to-helmet hit against the Patriots.
Dr. Leigh Ann Curl assists Todd Heap to the sidelines after his… (Gene Sweeney Jr, Baltimore…)
November 13, 2010|By Jonathan Pitts, The Baltimore Sun

The Baltimore Ravens trailed the visiting team by 4 points, the third quarter was ticking down, and as Joe Flacco lobbed a pass to the end zone, 71,220 anxious fans followed its flight through the sky.

For the moment, Leigh Ann Curl was one of them. From the sideline, she saw the ball on the fingertips of a streaking Ravens receiver, giving Baltimore the lead in the late October game against Buffalo.

Then something else caught her eye: One of her prize patients, Todd Heap, lay prone on the M&T Bank Stadium turf.

"He was moving a little, but he didn't get up," says Curl, the Ravens' head orthopedic surgeon and the first and only female to hold that title in the NFL. "I thought about the previous week [and Heap's much-publicized near- concussion against New England], so I went on the field."

Heap had a shoulder stinger — a painful jolt to the nerves linking shoulder and head — and not an aggravation to the damage done Oct. 17, when a Patriots player had felled him with a vicious helmet-to-helmet hit.

In other words, it was just another blow in the trench warfare that is daily life in the NFL — and another bit of business in the life of a woman utterly at ease in a world run almost exclusively by men.

"A football field is a dangerous place," Curl says. "They're all at risk to get catastrophically hurt every practice, every snap, every play. [We] keep them as healthy as we can. When they do get hurt, we try to get them back as quickly and as safely as possible."

In Heap's case, that was quickly indeed. Sideline tests by Curl and the head trainer showed no damage to the spine, no loss of motion, no greater risk of crippling injury than all players face. Though smarting, he was back on the field in 15 minutes.

Curl returned to the sideline, where she was the only woman among the 60 or so people between the 30-yard lines. Clad in purple and black, she watched through aviator shades, relishing the action as her patients took the Bills into overtime.

Pathfinding

If her career has been groundbreaking, it's not because Curl set out to make a statement. Her role as team head orthopedic surgeon — and thus as chief monitor of everything from Ray Rice's ankles to Ed Reed's neck — unfolded gradually, an inevitable result of who she is.

Curl, 47, was born in Pittsburgh, the second of six kids in a working-class family. A self-described tomboy, she took up softball and basketball early on.

She was also nuts about the 1970s-era Steelers team that won four Super Bowls. "Yep, Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, all those guys," she says a bit sheepishly. "I had to get over my Pittsburgh allegiance pretty quickly" after coming to Baltimore.

Sports provided a sanctuary when times were tough — such as when her mother died at a young age — and helped jump-start a new life. She earned a basketball scholarship to the University of Connecticut. A 6-foot-2 power forward, she set a batch of school scoring records and was twice named a GTE Academic All-American.

She also finished first in a class of more than 4,000.

"A No. 1 scorer and valedictorian, are you kidding me?" says Dr. Claude "Tee" Moorman, a former Ravens head team physician who now directs the sports medicine program at Duke. "She's off the charts in intelligence, and with her background in sports, she has an empathy for athletes and what they go through unlike anyone I've ever met."

Strange, then, that Curl never imagined becoming a doctor — at least not until a professor urged her to apply to a place she'd barely heard of: the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. She got in, fell for the hands-on practicality of orthopedics, and finished at the top of her class in 1988.

She was the only woman in her graduating class to pursue one of its subspecialties, sports medicine. While applying for residency programs, she did get a few questions that verged on discriminatory. One interviewer asked if she wouldn't rather get married and have kids.

To Curl, though, following her passion felt less like blazing a trail than, say, tuning out crowd noise while lining up a free throw. "I decided to become good enough that [gender] wouldn't matter," she says.

Health squad

Framed jerseys, including those of ex-Ravens Jonathan Ogden and Samari Rolle, line the walls of Curl's Cockeysville office. She has a full practice in addition to her football-related work — a combination that demands workdays of 12 hours or more.

After finishing with a spate of patients, she springs into the lobby in a white coat, hand extended to greet a visitor, and falls into patter about her favorite sport.

"Did you see the end of the Steelers' game?" she says of a Pittsburgh win that was sealed by a controversial end-zone fumble recovery. "Those guys always seem to get the close calls."

Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo says Curl can talk football with the best of them. But when she talks shop, she sees football as physics-meets-anatomy.

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