FEATURE

MVP: Most Valuable Physician

For Yankees doctor Christopher Ahmad '90SEAS, getting better isn't just about healing.

by Eric Kester Published Fall 2016
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Photographs © New York Yankees / All Rights Reserved

The refrain had been chanted thousands of times before, but it had never sounded like this. Its discordance echoed in a familiar setting: a chilly October night in the Bronx, playoff baseball, Game 1 of the 2012 American League Championship Series. The New York Yankees were battling the Detroit Tigers, and the crowd at Yankee Stadium was standing as one. Their claps were muffled by mittens, so they stomped their feet to the cadence of their chant: “Der-ek Je-ter, Der-ek Je-ter.” 

The din rattled around the bleachers, swept through the grandstands, and reverberated down the concrete stanchions into the depths of the stadium, into the training room, where the Yankee captain lay writhing on a training table. The chant from above was infused with an unfamiliar restlessness, because at that moment the crowd’s hopes didn’t depend on a pitch but on a picture: an X-ray of Jeter’s left ankle, which he had just twisted diving for a ground ball at shortstop. Baseball gods willing, the X-ray would come back clean, and the fifty thousand stomping fans, along with millions more worldwide, could exhale.  

Underneath the grandstands, the Yankees’ team physician, Christopher Ahmad ’90SEAS, held the news that the sports world waited upon. But he wasn’t thinking about the fans or the media. He wasn’t thinking about the Yankees brain trust that now surrounded Jeter in the training room, a group that included Yankee legends Joe Torre, Tino Martinez, and Reggie Jackson, as well as Yankees senior vice president and general manager Brian Cashman. Ahmad wasn’t even thinking of Jeter’s ankle. He was thinking only of his patient’s emotional state. He was focused solely on one of the most difficult moments a doctor of sports medicine can face: telling a player who can play through anything that he can’t play through this.

“You always have to remember that a professional athlete puts every ounce of himself into his sport — into his body,” says Ahmad. “And if you take that away from him, in a way you’re taking away who he is as a person.”

Ahmad, a professor of orthopedic surgery at Columbia University Medical Center, understands that for an athlete, a split tendon or a torn ligament is more than an injury. It’s a rip in the fabric of his identity, an unraveling of a self that’s been meticulously woven in practices and games since childhood. Major injuries often leave a scar, but in an athlete’s case they also leave an abstract hole, a vague emptiness. When asked in the post-game press conference about Jeter’s reaction to the diagnosis — a season-ending fractured ankle — Cashman answered quietly, “He didn’t have one.” 

"I always had a sense I could put things back together," Ahmad says.

That night, as Ahmad drove home from Yankee Stadium to Lower Manhattan, where he lives with his wife, orthopedic surgeon Beth E. Shubin Stein ’91CC, ’96PS, and their three children, he immediately got to work. Not on Jeter, but on himself. Like a professional athlete reviewing his game film, Ahmad analyzed his performance in the training room, using a voice recorder to document any observations or areas where he felt he should have been better. Did he deliver the news as well as he could have? How might he have done it differently? For Ahmad, honest self-critique is a cornerstone of genuine self-improvement.

“Many professionals don’t like to face the reality that maybe they’re not as good as they can be,” he explains. “And when it comes to medicine it’s especially difficult to think, ‘I didn’t perform well, and that affected my patient.’”

That’s why he dissects all aspects of his role as the Yankees’ team physician, including his bedside manner. By analyzing his interactions with injured athletes, he’s refined a communication skill set that helps athletes through the lowest points of their careers.

“First, you have to be humble — don’t use technical language they can’t understand,” Ahmad advises. “Sit down next to them and talk to them eye-to-eye. Don’t stare down at them as they sit on the training table. And when giving bad news, don’t be ambiguous. Explain that they can’t play through the injury, no matter how hard they try. Then explain that there is a solution and that you’ll do everything you can to fix the problem.”

Ahmad’s guiding principle in these interactions is to put himself in the athlete’s shoes — an easy fit for a man who spent much of his childhood wearing soccer cleats. He grew up on Long Island with a nurse mother and a psychiatrist father. But despite family roots in medicine, Ahmad first set his aspirations on professional soccer.

As a young player he was gifted, but it was his deficiencies — or more accurately, his response to them — that propelled him to elite levels. If a teammate had better foot skills, for instance, Ahmad would design and execute drills that would isolate the skill for improvement. The payoff was substantial: he was selected to play in the Olympic Development Program and was recruited for Columbia’s nationally ranked soccer program. This success validated Ahmad’s approach to personal improvement and would later translate to all aspects of his life as a surgeon. 

Ahmad collected his insights into self-betterment in his recent book Skill: 40 Principles that Surgeons, Athletes, and Other Elite Performers Use to Achieve Mastery. In this guide, Ahmad emphasizes the difference between “soft skills” and “hard skills,” and stresses the importance of distinguishing and cultivating both types of abilities. Soft skills, Ahmad says, are more abstract, rooted in creative improvisation, foresight, and adaptive problem solving, “like a quarterback looking across the field and reading a defense.” He argues that soft skills separate elite surgeons from good ones: a good surgeon, for example, can work around the spate of blood that comes from operating in a region with an unusually high number of blood vessels; elite surgeons notice these vessels before they even begin, clamping them down preemptively.

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