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SMHS alumni in professional athletics put one in the win column for UND
Matt Harder remembers the night well.
On November 19, 2016, Harder, Assistant Athletic Trainer and Strength Coach for the Tucson Roadrunners, was in the athletic training room of the Tucson Arena preparing his Phoenix Coyotes-affiliated hockey team for a home game.
“I was getting the ‘scratches’ of the players who would be out for that night’s game, and one of our staffers ran in and told me that I needed to get out on the ice now—one of our players had gone down,” Harder (right) recalls.
Looking to the room’s game clock, Harder frowned upon realizing that the night’s contest hadn’t even started yet.
Nor would it start for some time.
What had happened minutes before the puck was set to drop was that former Boston Bruin and then-Roadrunner team captain Craig Cunningham had fallen inexplicably to the ice and was lying on his back, unconscious.
“I ran out on the ice to see what happened and the paramedics were out there already. His pulse was sporadic so we started removing his gear,” Harder continues, remembering how he was joined at the scene by Jake Wolff, Strength and Conditioning Trainer with the Manitoba Moose hockey squad, a Winnipeg Jets affiliate against which the Roadrunners were facing-off that evening. “We started CPR on the ice as we got him on a spine board. Once we got him off the ice we did [automated external defibrillation] and got him into the ambulance. I rode with Craig in the back—the paramedic and I traded performing CPR and we shocked him two more times.”
What Harder didn’t know as this dramatic event was unfolding was that Cunningham was experiencing a ventricular fibrillation—a type of arrhythmic quivering of the heart muscle that without treatment results in cardiac arrest and thus death. To this day, the reason for his arrhythmia remains unknown.
Given that the Cunningham survived the episode, it is not exaggerating to say that Harder and Wolff, the UND School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS) alumni who once roomed together and got their start working on future professional hockey players at UND, helped save a life that night.
Harder and Wolff are not alone: from the minor leagues to the pros, from hockey and basketball to tennis and the Olympics, SMHS-trained physicians, therapists, and athletic trainers have worked or are currently working with professional athletes at all levels in the U.S. and around the globe.
Take Philip Q. Johnson, MD. Not completely satisfied after earning a physical therapy degree from the SMHS in 1980, Johnson looked to medicine almost immediately a quarter century ago. “I just decided I needed to go on,” Dr. Johnson said from his Grand Forks office of jumping into the School’s MD program, which he completed in 1984. “Being exposed to sports through high school and football here [Dr. Johnson was a wide receiver for UND Football in 1976 and ’77] led me to wanting to learn more about sport-related injuries. And I felt the profession that could best satisfy that interest, and allow me to do more for my patients, would be orthopedic surgery.”
Dr. Johnson (right), who is an SMHS clinical professor of Surgery, wanted not only to treat injuries, but fix them: “That’s what we do in orthopedic surgery. Structures fracture or become torn and we repair them and try to allow these patients to get back to the level of participation or work they’re used to.”
After a fellowship in sports medicine and surgery at the University of Western Ontario in Canada with Peter Fowler, MD, where he met Michael Stewart, MD, Johnson was given the opportunity to begin working with Team USA Hockey in 2000, shortly after Dr. Stewart was named the Chief Medical Officer for Team USA.
Dr. Johnson has been involved with the team in a variety of ways ever since, working with players and coaches at the International Ice Hockey Federation’s (IIHF) World Juniors Championship since 2004, the U.S. National Under-17 and 18 team, and the gold medal-winning Team USA World Junior Team hockey club. He was also Chief Medical Officer for the IIHF Under-18 World Championships in Fargo (2009) and Grand Forks (2016).
In February 2018, Dr. Johnson and Team USA will be off to Pyeongchang, South Korea, for the XXIII Olympic Winter Games—the first games in two decades that will not feature National Hockey League players.
“I’ve been fortunate enough and humbled enough to be taken on by the Olympic team this year. It’s going to be exciting,” says Dr. Johnson, who has also been team physician for Fargo- Moorhead Redhawks baseball and the International Basketball Association’s Fargo-Moorhead Beez. “It’s a different level—there are obviously more eyes focused on you than at the World Juniors, but it’s going to be fun in Pyeongchang.”
As the conversation was winding down, Dr. Johnson looked at his watch—it was UND hockey night after all: “We still watch as often as we can,” he admits. “We have our season tickets. It’s so amazing to me that I can turn on the television most any night and there will be players on my screen that I’ve seen through the years with Team USA. It’s fun to see players develop and grow, from when they were 17 years-old until they’re professionals.”
Blazing the Trail
Perhaps even better than watching the pros on television, though, is working with them in person. This is exactly what Jesse Elis, DPT, has been doing for years as well. After graduating from the SMHS with his Doctor of Physical Therapy degree in 2009, Elis completed a three-year post doctorate fellowship in orthopedic manual therapy and went on to be the Director of Physical Therapy at EXOS, a world renowned performance company. While at Exos, the Dickinson, N.D.-native added the title of performance therapist for professional tennis player CoCo Vandeweghe, who made the Wimbledon quarterfinals in 2015.
Elis (right) first became interested in his future profession through a recommendation by his mother, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in her mid-20s. Having attended a handful of his mother’s physical therapy sessions while he was a teenager, Elis came to appreciate not only the musculo-skeletal gains therapy offers, but the emotional impact it has on patients.
“Though it’s not in the job description, I get to deal with psychological issues every day, especially with the recent expansion of the pain sciences and their value in our clinical practice,” Elis told North Dakota Medicine in an e-mail, suggesting that sometimes a patient struggling with a major surgery, injury, or chronic condition just needs someone to talk to. “In sports especially, there is a high amount of mental stress required to compete at an elite level, and when an athlete is limited or required to rest due to an injury, a PT needs to step up and provide not only therapy but education and empathy. It takes a lot of emotional intelligence to earn the trust of an athlete, agent, coach, or general manager.”
It is for this reason that Elis feels that he spends as much time normalizing the healing process with many athletes—educating them and helping reduce their levels of anxiety or fear—as he does on the diagnosis and treatment of injury.
Elis must be very good at each of these things for in August 2017 he was named Director of Player Health and Performance for the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers. As a Blazers news release on the hire noted, “Elis will lead all facets of the Trail Blazers medical staff to collaboratively provide preventive maintenance and rehabilitative health care to Trail Blazers players.”
When asked if he thought the move to focusing on a small set of one-sport athletes might affect how he practices his profession, Elis didn’t miss a beat.
“It changes my approach so far as there are more athletes to manage at once and each one has different movement dysfunctions or orthopedic problems,” noted Elis, who is board certified by the American Physical Therapy Association in both Orthopedics and Sports and designated as a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. “We try every day to provide a ‘prescription’ for each player based on their current performance and how their body is adapting to the chronic stress—and keep them engaged.”
Or, as Elis says he tries to remind his players, “Good things happen when you stay hungry and put in the extra work that no one else can see.”