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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That’s not to say that “hard skills” — the technical abilities that one develops through meticulous repetition — are unimportant. They are, after all, the foundation upon which soft skills are built. Ahmad began developing his hard skills in orthopedic surgery before he was aware of it. His first summer job was for an engineering firm that made helicopter components, and this internship illuminated his mechanical gifts. “I always had a sense I could put things back together,” Ahmad says. When it was time to declare his major at Columbia, Ahmad chose mechanical engineering.

Still, soccer was Ahmad’s passion. In 1988 he earned an All-Ivy honorable mention, and following graduation he strongly considered trying to go pro. However, after discussing it with his family, Ahmad made the hard decision to retire from the game he loved. “It’s very difficult,” he says. “You play this game your whole life, train almost every day to get to this level, then one day your college career is over.”

It wasn’t goodbye, though — not to soccer or to Columbia. While playing soccer, Ahmad was fascinated by the effect injuries had on his body, and determined to reduce their impact on his abilities. If he twisted his ankle, he didn’t just have a trainer tape it — he studied the trainer’s technique, then experimented on himself to devise a better taping procedure that gave his ankle the care it needed while minimizing its encumbrance. His devotion to athletics, coupled with his studies in mechanical engineering, led Ahmad naturally to sports medicine, with a specific interest in two fulcrums of the human body, the knees and elbows. “Derek Jeter dreamed of being a shortstop for the Yankees; I dreamed of leading sports medicine at Columbia,” Ahmad says. “And choosing this field allowed me to stay connected to soccer.”

Ahmad earned his medical degree at New York University and completed his residency at Columbia Orthopaedics. One of Ahmad’s biggest career breaks came in 2000, when he was selected for the sports-medicine fellowship at the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopedic Clinic in Los Angeles. There, Ahmad provided treatment for the Los Angeles Dodgers and worked with the orthopedic pioneer Frank Jobe, who in 1974 changed baseball forever by developing a way to surgically reconstruct a torn ulnar collateral ligament, or UCL, the absolutely vital — and all too fragile — part of a pitcher’s elbow. The operation, known today as “Tommy John Surgery” after the first baseball player to undergo it, captivated the rookie surgeon. “The idea of taking a pitcher’s ligament that’s torn — that’s stopping him from throwing — and then getting him to throw ninety-five miles per hour again, all through a very precise surgery that relies on your technical skill: it’s like playing World Cup soccer. That was the stage I wanted to be on.”

Since his one-on-one training with Jobe, Ahmad has established himself as one of the world’s preeminent Tommy John surgeons, winning multiple research awards and publishing over two hundred articles and fifty book chapters on elbow, shoulder, and sports medicine. 

Ahmad became Yankee team physician in 2009, a post in which he regularly deals with players’ sprains, pulls, fractures, ruptures, bruises, soreness, and muscle tears.

“One of the things that initially drew us to Dr. Ahmad was his vast experience in diagnosing and treating athletes who perform at the highest level of sports,” says Cashman. “As our head team physician, he has been thorough, thoughtful, and dedicated to improving his craft.” 

He has also seen some curveballs. In 2013, Yankees star Alex Rodriguez filed a malpractice lawsuit against Ahmad, claiming the physician didn’t inform him about a joint tear in his hip (part of what the New York Daily News called Rodriguez’s “scorched-earth battle to dodge his historic Biogenesis steroid ban”). The suit was later dropped.

Ahmad has never let a distraction disrupt his game. “I’m always looking to contribute to orthopedics,” he says, “always looking to develop a better surgical technique.” 

And baseball needs it. Between 2012 and 2015, Major League Baseball players underwent Tommy John surgery 114 times, compared to 69 operations from 2008 to 2011. Even more concerning is the growing number of youth baseball players who suffer elbow injuries. In a recent CUMC study, Ahmad discovered that the number of UCL reconstructions per hundred thousand people has tripled from 2002 to 2011. Almost all of that growth occurred in males seventeen to twenty years old. 

Major League Baseball has asked Ahmad to join the advisory board of its Pitch Smart program, an initiative to better educate players and coaches on how to keep elbows healthy. Ahmad is also meeting with orthopedic and sports-medicine specialists as he builds a database of UCL reconstructions in the US, a trove of information that will provide invaluable insight into the scope and root causes of the injury. 

Evidence of Ahmad’s achievements can be found on his office walls, which are filled with pictures of sports stars. The inscriptions go beyond mere pleasantries. A signed photo from a track-and-field athlete says it all: “Dr. Ahmad — Thank you for putting me back together.”  

Read the related article Get Better: Skill-Sharpening Tips from Dr. Ahmad.

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