A Cut Above : Injured Athletes Feel Lucky to Be Patients of Dr. Frank Jobe
He was 19 and sleeping in a foxhole near Bastogne, Belgium, when he was awakened by the rumble of German tanks.
He was a soldier, but not a fighter. He was a country boy who would write letters to his parents about being scared to death.
But there he was, looking up at German soldiers who had climbed out of those tanks and pointed their weapons at his head.
He was captured. He and a buddy huddled together and watched as the rest of their platoon was captured as well. They stared at one another. They stared into their dim futures. They wondered what to do.
Frank Jobe chose flight.
His buddy shoved one of the distracted German soldiers. Jobe saw an opening and dived down a nearby hill. His buddy followed.
They rolled to a road, where they spotted an oncoming truck. Without looking closely, they jumped on.
“I didn’t know if it was one of their trucks or our trucks,” Jobe recalled, smiling. “Looking back, I guess I was pretty lucky it was one of our trucks.”
It is no accident that nearly 50 years later, if you’re a pitcher and your livelihood depends on somebody cutting into your shoulder, this is the guy you want holding the scalpel. After all, he is lucky.
He is one of the most important, visible members of the Dodger organization. Yet to the players, he is known simply as the eyes behind the mask.
“I think that’s what many of us think of when it comes to Dr. Jobe,” said Jay Howell, a relief pitcher who underwent two arthroscopic knee operations last year. “We don’t think of his personality, we think of those eyes, blinking above that mask, blinking, blinking, blinking, right before he goes down to open you up.”
Even the athletes who have brought him the most fame feel they barely know him.
“I have been out with Dr. Jobe socially just once,” Orel Hershiser said. “But that was only because we were both at the same place at same time.”
Behind the mask there is the face of a renowned orthopedic surgeon who returned to the news this summer after performing landmark shoulder reconstruction that returned Hershiser to the mound for the first-place Dodgers.
Jobe has ministered to other injured sports stars such as Tommy John, George Brett, Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, Jim McMahon, Jerry Pate, Paul Azinger and Ivan Lendl.
And he has saved the careers of hundreds of other athletes since joining Dr. Bob Kerlan in 1965 to form what is now the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic.
Jobe, 65, speaks with the confident authority of a healer, but has the accent and appearance of a country doctor.
If Jobe were a baseball player, he would probably be a right-handed pitcher. And a left-handed pitcher. He is ambidextrous as the result of a broken arm he suffered in the second grade.
As a pitcher he would also be a fast worker. Remember the Hershiser surgery, the operation that was publicly discussed and diagrammed for nearly a year? Jobe finished the operation in 45 minutes. That is half the time it takes some of his peers.
“Unlike many other doctors, when he does surgery there is very little wasted movement,” said his son Christopher, also an orthopedic surgeon and one of Jobe’s four children.
“It’s a little bit like somebody doing the hula. Everything he does means something. It looks like it’s going slow, but it’s actually going very fast.”
But he sometimes can’t stay awake during staff meetings, and used to employ a driver because of a tendency to doze off behind the wheel.
Several years ago it was discovered that Jobe has narcolepsy, a condition characterized by brief but sudden attacks of deep sleep.
It never affects him during surgery, but only because he is standing up. He has fallen asleep during everything from lectures to sales pitches.
“It happened once when these sales representatives were at the research lab, showing us this important equipment,” Jobe recalled with a chuckle.
“Right in the middle of their big spiel, they looked down to see that the guy they were trying to sell was sitting in the front row, fast asleep.”
Jobe needs no medication, and has since discharged his driver. But he can’t rid his family of their worries.
“Sure we worry, because you can die from this,” Christopher said. “We all really worry about him driving home at night. We’re fortunate Dodger Stadium is a pretty easy drive from his house late at night.”
Jobe handles the condition as he handles everything else, as he has handled things since leaving North Carolina at 18, the son of a postman and farmer. He doesn’t like the fuss.
“I tried a chauffeur, but, to be honest, he drove me crazy,” he said. “I just don’t like anybody driving me around.
“Actually, I don’t really think I have narcolepsy. I just doze off while sitting in a big chair in a warm room after a good meal. I think that happens to a lot of people.”
He is addicted to vanilla ice cream. He orders it at restaurants, and keeps cartons of it in his freezer. After work, he sometimes dips into one before greeting his wife, Beverly.
He also loves baseball, although he is one of the few fans who cheers not for teams or players, but for limbs.
“We’ll be watching a game together and he will say, ‘Look at that guy’s arm. I worked on it a couple of months ago and look how good its doing!’ ” said son Cameron. “He watches not just the teams, he watches how his work is holding up.”
Most of all, Jobe likes the people who need him.
“He is one of those surgeons who, once he puts a mark on a patient, along with that goes a piece of his heart,” said Michael Mellman, the Dodgers’ internist. “If somebody he operated on many, many years ago comes back for more help, he is right there for them. It doesn’t have to be a sports star, it can be Aunt Hattie. In fact, the majority of his patients are not sports stars.
“And do you know he still makes his hospital rounds on Saturdays? Not every big name in this business still does that.”
Jobe makes those rounds after a normal week of six operations on Tuesday, three on Thursday and three on Friday. During baseball season, that week is compounded by nightly visits to Dodger Stadium, where Jobe will examine players before the game and then watch the game until about the eighth inning.
“I have to do rounds--if I don’t get in there and see my patients before they check out, they might not see me for a week,” Jobe said. “I got into this business to help people, and that hasn’t changed.”
He doesn’t help any other group as he helps the Dodgers, who so value his judgment that he is almost like an extra coach or assistant general manager.
When he says a potential Dodger is not a good physical risk, the Dodgers usually don’t sign that particular free agent.
When he says a player should be put on the disabled list, the Dodgers usually do it.
And when basically sound players with histories of physical problems think about changing teams, because of Jobe they often think about coming to the Dodgers.
“Jobe is a huge reason I came here,” said Jim Gott, a relief pitcher who had sat out a year because of elbow problems before joining the Dodgers last season from Pittsburgh. “With the Pirates, they were never sure how far I could come back. But Dr. Jobe knew. And I knew that the Dodgers listened to what he said.
“With some clubs, the medical side says one thing but the baseball side does another. On this team, because of Dr. Jobe, nobody is ever told by the doctor they shouldn’t be pitching, only to have the general manager not believe them.”
Said Fred Claire, Dodger vice president: “Put it this way: I’ve never heard anybody around here second-guess one of Jobe’s opinions. We didn’t sign Kevin Gross until he had been examined by Dr. Jobe. We didn’t sign Jim Gott until he had been examined.
“Frank’s judgment is certainly an influence on my judgments.”
About the only thing that Jobe cannot affect is a trade. Unlike in the NFL, baseball players do not undergo pretrade physical examinations by teams that hope to trade for them.
“I’ve said it over and over again--why don’t baseball teams get the examination before a trade?” Jobe said. “I guess it’s just one of those things they do.”
If parts of the baseball world still mystify Jobe, it is because he never planned to be part of any world that involved sports.
He rode the bench with his Greensboro, N.C., high school baseball team. He wanted to play football, but he was forced to quit when the managers wouldn’t give him pants that fit.
When he joined the Army’s 101st Airborne Division after high school in 1943, it was not as a fighting man, but as a medical records clerk.
He found himself stationed in Europe shortly before D-Day with no more battle know-how than basic training. It was there, watching and working with doctors on the front lines, that he decided he wanted to become one of them.
“These guys would be operating in tents with bullets and shrapnel flying around,” Jobe recalled. “There was tremendous noise from the shells going off. There was blood everywhere. These guys became my real heroes.”
Jobe also picked up a principle that he adheres to today, as irritating as it might be to Dodger fans. He will treat any athlete who seeks his help, no matter if it will help that athlete’s team beat the Dodgers.
“If a soldier was wounded, those doctors over there took care of him, even if he was the enemy,” Jobe said. “I consider myself a doctor for individuals, not teams. You don’t use medicine as a means of winning.”
Despite his brief capture and frequent jaunts behind enemy lines, Jobe says he was not even scratched in Europe, which only strengthened his resolve for a career in medicine.
After returning home, he attended a junior college in Tennessee, then came to the Los Angeles area to attend La Sierra College and Loma Linda Medical School. After spending three years as a general practitioner to pay off his school loans, he did his orthopedic residency at Los Angeles County Hospital, where he met orthopedic specialist Robert Kerlan.
“I told Dr. Kerlan I wanted to work for him,” Jobe recalled. “He asked me how much salary I wanted. I told him I only wanted what I would make on each patient.”
They called themselves the Southwestern Orthopaedic Medical Group then. Today it is known simply as Kerlan-Jobe, and features 16 doctors and hundreds of patients.
The clinic serves most of Los Angeles’ major sports teams, but Jobe concentrates on the Dodgers, who have given him the title of medical director.
Jobe was happy to work in the shadow of the more established Kerlan, but in 1974 he earned prominence by becoming the first doctor to reconstruct a pitching elbow through the use of a tendon transplant. The elbow belonged to Tommy John, and Jobe’s life has not been the same since that operation.
“And he has been as awestruck by what has happened to him as anybody,” son Meredith said.
His family tells of how a star athlete’s son once asked him for his autograph. He looked at the boy and said, “This is ridiculous.”
Jobe is also uncomfortable because his stature prevents him from loosening up around players.
“I’d like to go in there and joke with them, like some doctors, but I don’t want them to wonder, ‘What does he mean by that?’ ” Jobe said. “I have to be careful because, in my position, everything I say can be taken in the wrong way.”
But one thing about Jobe hasn’t changed. It is the thing that associates say continues to make him the leading elbow and shoulder surgeon in the country.
Whenever he walks into the operating room, Jobe puts himself back in the position he was in 40 years ago outside that Belgian foxhole. His mind races. He looks for a solution as if his life depended on it.
“The night before some surgeries, I’ll wake up at 4 in the morning,” Jobe said. “I’ll find myself lying there, thinking, ‘Is there anything I left out?’ ”