Repairing Kobe Bryant, Zack Greinke just another day’s work for him
On Friday, April 12, Dr. Neal ElAttrache of the Kerlan-Jobe Clinic in Los Angeles slept without trouble, which wouldn’t be news except for one thing.
The next day, ElAttrache had a pair of surgeries scheduled on athletes whose combined price tag this year alone is right around $48 million.
On Friday, ElAttrache knew he would be performing an operation on the shoulder of star Dodgers pitcher Zack Greinke, who had broken his collarbone in a scuffle with San Diego’s Carlos Quentin.
But while he was watching the evening news that night, after a long day in surgery, ElAttrache saw the video of the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant in agony because of a torn Achilles’ tendon.
Just as he was starting to ponder what this all meant, ElAttrache’s telephone rang.
“It was Kobe, asking if I could fit him in Saturday,” ElAttrache said.
So there it was. About as busy and important a day as a Los Angeles orthopedic surgeon has ever had. That Saturday would not be spent on the golf course.
Some days are spent on a golf course, often Riviera Country Club, where ElAttrache carries a 10 handicap. He does about 500 surgeries a year and spends as much time as possible watching his three daughters play sports. His oldest, Nicole, is a senior volleyball player at Harvard-Westlake and will be going to Duke next year. She and her dad can talk for hours about her skills.
Daughter Natalie is a sophomore at Harvard-Westlake and, like her sister, plays volleyball. The youngest, Eva, is in grade school.
He met his wife, Tricia, a nurse, on his first day in the operating room at Kerlan-Jobe. Friends had suggested that they might be compatible. “The friends were right,” Tricia said.
“She didn’t go out with me right away,” ElAttrache says, “but I wore her down.”
Being married to the “surgeon to the stars” doesn’t faze Tricia. After all, Tricia’s sister is married to actor Sylvester Stallone; there was another doubleheader day last spring when ElAttrache did surgery on the rotator cuffs of Stallone and former California Gov. and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“I told Neal I needed surgery right away, so he told me to come in at 10,” Stallone said. “He prepped me and they roll me into the operating room, and at an intersection my gurney almost T-bones Arnold. I say, ‘Neal, how can this happen?’ And Neal says, ‘It’s just a coincidence. Same day, same operation.’”
But one of ElAttrache’s friends from back home in Pennsylvania said it would be wrong to think that ElAttrache is a big shot now or hangs with only the famous people.
Jim Rohr, executive director of PNC Financial Services in Pittsburgh, said ElAttrache had never been his doctor.
“But I’ve known him and his family for many years, and I see how he treats people. He has a passion and consideration for not just friends but patients. I’ve known him to go anywhere to see someone.
“I also knew Mr. [Fred] Rogers from television,” Rohr said. “Who he was on TV, that’s who he was. Neal is the same way 100% of the time. He’s always trying to help someone and is sincere about it and not because he has the title of ‘Dr.’ in front of his name.”
ElAttrache grew up in Mount Pleasant, Pa., a mining town of about 5,000 about an hour southeast of Pittsburgh.
His father, Selim, a Lebanese immigrant, was the town’s orthopedic surgeon. The son would have loved to have been an athlete. “I tried basketball, football, baseball, everything,” ElAttrache said, “I just wasn’t good enough.”
But he also became interested in watching his father make athletes better. These weren’t multimillion-dollar professionals, just his friends and neighbors, weekend athletes and high school athletes. What intrigued ElAttrache was that, mostly, his father cured them.
In a week or two or three, Selim’s patients were mobile; they returned to playing sports again. Being a doctor looked like an attractive option to Selim’s son.
ElAttrache did his undergraduate work at Notre Dame and went to medical school at Pittsburgh. When it was time to choose a residency program, he had his pick.
“It was a lucky time for me,” the 53-year-old said recently while speaking in a Newport Beach hotel lobby after meeting with sports agent Scott Boras.
“Sports medicine wasn’t a big ‘thing’ when I graduated, and there were basically two great sports medicine residencies to look at — with Dr. James Andrews in Birmingham, Ala., and Drs. Robert Kerlan and Frank Jobe in Los Angeles.”
ElAttrache was also considering a cardiothoracic specialty, taking care of hearts and lungs. When he spoke of making his decision, ElAttrache’s eyes filled with tears.
“It was a trying decision for me,” ElAttrache said. “I loved cardiothoracic so much, but on the ortho side I was drawn to a group of people who were basically pretty healthy, just hurt or broken, and they would get better.
“On the final weekend both programs were being offered to me, and Dr. Henry Benson, who was a pioneer in transplants, came after me hard,” ElAttrache said.
“He was an innovator. He had performed the first heart transplant in Pennsylvania. He helped make University of Pittsburgh a leader in the world as a transplant center.
“But you lose sight sometimes that in that specialty, especially with kids, you’re dealing with really sick people, and I thought to myself, ‘This is what my life will be, working with so many patients who will never make it out of ICU.’ You have to talk to their families, parents, and I realized I might be too sensitive for that to have a long career.
“In a sense I made the choice to keep a positive outlook through my life. In orthopedics, you could. You could help a guy run again or walk again or throw again. You mostly saw them get better and do their sport again. So I made the choice, and it caused me some sleepless nights.”
ElAttrache then had to choose a clinic. After Jobe showed up at his doorstep in Mount Pleasant, the choice was clear.
ElAttrache said his father once had hopes his son would stay home and they would practice together, but Selim told his son to go. “He gave me his blessing,” ElAttrache said.
It wasn’t long before ElAttrache started attracting many of the best athletes to his practice.
“He’s always had a great reputation,” Bryant said. “I’ve known him for quite some time. He did one of my knee operations and I was pleased with that, so when it came time to do my Achilles, he was obviously a natural choice.”
“Dr. ElAttrache is the real deal — one of the most talented surgeons I’ve met,” Schwarzenegger said. “He can fix what others say is unfixable. He is the ultimate asset for any athlete who goes to him because they need their bodies to perform at their best, whether it is on a football field or in the movies.”
Surfer Laird Hamilton, who said he would do anything to heal naturally and also had a fear of going under the knife, finally asked ElAttrache to look at “some broken pieces,” as he called them.
“What I like about him was that surgery was his last resort,” Hamilton said, " He would want to try everything else first. Now, if I have broken pieces, he’s my first call.”
Hamilton called ElAttrache about a month ago. “I was lucky,” he said. “My shoulder was bothering me, but no broken pieces and no surgery. He just fixed me. It’s like magic.”
What was surprising, Hamilton said, was that ElAttrache looks as if he is from central casting, created by television to be a successful surgeon on a show. “But then you meet him and he’s just a normal guy.”
New England quarterback Tom Brady met ElAttrache at the Pebble Beach pro-am golf tournament. When Brady needed knee surgery in 2008, he made the call to ElAttrache.
“He takes everything head-on,” Brady said. “He has integrity, and he has the best interest of each person as a patient at heart. We built a strong relationship on trust first. He’s done a great job on so many cases, and I have so much respect for him. He’s one of my best friends at this point.
“There a fine line between being too conservative and too aggressive, and what he’s able to do is find that line and get athletes back on the field, recovered and competitive.”
Clinic partner Jobe said besides being an excellent surgeon, ElAttrache is an excellent teacher. Jobe said he had so much faith in ElAttrache that he let him operate on both his shoulders.
“And they are fine,” Jobe said.
ElAttrache knows that all eyes will be on him if Bryant doesn’t have a successful season at some point this year with the Lakers. “But I don’t think about that,” he said. “I do my best and I listen to my patients. If I listened to everyone else, maybe I’d never sleep.”
Perhaps his best friend is James Bradley, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ team doctor.
“We grew up in the mountains of Pennsylvania in a place where there’s a strong work ethic,” Bradley said. “You shake hands and you ask someone what we can do for you, and we mean it. That’s Neal. He wants to help.”
Bradley says ElAttrache is just as happy to put a high school soccer player back on the field as he is to put Bryant back in the Lakers’ lineup. “People don’t always understand that,” Bradley says, “but that means just as much to him.”
Tricia once asked her husband if he ever got nervous. “He said no,” Tricia said. “I asked why.”
ElAttrache told her it was because he was always thinking ahead 10 steps.
“‘If this goes wrong, here’s what I do. If that goes wrong, I do this.’ He always feel confident he can solve the problem,” she said.
Tricia says her husband doesn’t have a lot of hobbies other than watching his daughters play sports, watching ESPN and occasionally following a TV series such as “Game of Thrones.”
“He works, he teaches, he comes home and spends as much time as he can with his daughters,” she said.
The family is planning a vacation to the Greek Islands next summer, Nicole’s last before heading to Duke. Whenever they can take a few days, the family skis at Vail. Otherwise it’s work.
Tricia said ElAttrache was glued to the television Sunday watching Russell Westbrook return from injury to play for Oklahoma City. ElAttrache had done Westbrook’s knee surgery. That’s his free time.