A pioneer of sports medicine

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It all began with a bout of tennis elbow. Dr. Robert Nirschl loved playing sports such as basketball, football and tennis in high school. So when his family moved to Northern Virginia, they joined the Tuckahoe Recreation Club, and Nirschl picked up a racket again. 

As he felt soreness in his arm, the orthopedic surgeon began to look into the leading research on tennis elbow. But none of it seemed right. “I went to the cadaver lab at Georgetown and started to analyze the anatomy. (I realized) what we had been doing for the last 100 years absolutely makes no sense,” he said. 

So he redesigned the surgery used to treat tennis elbow, now known as the Nirschl operative procedure. It’s one of the many reasons the Mayo Clinic honored Nirschl, a parishioner of St. Agnes Church in Arlington, with the distinguished alumni award earlier this year. “When I go to meetings and whatnot, people will come up to me and say, ‘I’m doing your operation and it really works and I appreciate it.’ So that’s really rewarding,” he said.

Nirschl was born the son of a dentist, raised in South Milwaukee and educated by Franciscan nuns. He studied for two years at College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, then transferred to Marquette University in Milwaukee, graduating in 1954. “I spent a lot of time with Jesuits one way or another,” he joked. He graduated from the Medical College of Wisconsin, then interned for two years at St. Mary’s Hospital in Duluth. He studied orthopedic surgery at the Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota.   

To avoid being drafted while in the midst of his studies, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy and worked for two year as a surgeon in the now closed St. Albans Naval Hospital in Long Island. “In the military, you’re dealing with essentially occupational athletes,” he said. “Whether it’s throwing a baseball or throwing a hand grenade the goal is good health and to perform.” 

Nirschl and his wife, Mary Ann, eventually settled in McLean. When he began his medical practice in Arlington, “there was no such thing as sports medicine,” he said. But in 1970, around the same time he started playing again, “somehow I got involved with tennis players, and the next thing I knew I was filming world-class tennis players and analyzing their strokes,” he said. 

“I started to find out what caused injury. From then, we started to work on appropriate rehabilitation programs, which were more or less nonexistent at the time.”

Nirschl founded the Virginia Sportsmedicine Institute in 1974. He served on the President’s Council on Physical Fitness under Ronald Reagan. He started two fellowship programs to train young physicians in sports medicine, including one for military doctors. In the course of his career, he operated on Wimbledon tennis champions. “The mentality of the athlete is they want to get well fast, so from that point of view, it’s a very positive patient population to deal with,” he said.

The Nirschls’ three children attended Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington. Nirschl served as the team doctor for sport injuries for 35 year at O’Connell and at other local high schools. He also served on the board for trustees for Marymount University in Arlington 2005-14. 

The Nirschls have been married for 59 years, and have 11 grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Though he’s stopped doing surgery, Nirschl still goes into the office a few times a week and is sought out for second opinions. 

Through dozen of articles, Nirschl has advocated for a system that prioritizes the patient/doctor relationship. Today the “veterinary ethic” pervades the healthcare system, said Nirschl. In an animal clinic, the vet naturally approaches the owner, not the pet, to explain treatment options. 

“You hope that the pet owner is a pet lover,” he said.  

In a similar way, instead of being accountable to their patients, doctors have to answer to hospitals or insurance companies first, he said. It makes it hard for the most well-intentioned doctors to provide quality care.

“The only way out of the dilemma is for the patient to be in control and for the doctor to do what’s in the best interest of the patient. The best way that can happen is that the patient has control over their own health benefits,” he said. “And politically, (it requires) one sentence in the tax code — everyone is treated equally under purchase of the health benefit. That’s what the Catholic community should be pushing.” 

Dr. Nirschl spent years training to be a specialty doctor. He’s made it a priority to train fledgling doctors and written hundreds of article and book chapters. He’s m developed new techniques, new procedures, and helped pioneer a new field of medicine that many discounted at the time.

“It all goes back to Catholic tradition and what was imbued in the legacy of the Mayo Clinic, which was do what’s in the best interest of the patient,” he said.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018

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