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Head of Northside Hospital’s new Sports Medicine Network shares her story, vision for the network’s future
Vonda Wright
Northside recently announced Dr. Vonda Wright had been hired at the hospital to head up the new Sports Medicine Network and combine expertise from three of the system’s practices —Northside East Cobb, Northside Cherokee and The Orthopedic Sports Medicine Center of Atlanta — to provide care across the system’s locations. - photo by Kelly Whitmire

This article appears in the January issue of 400 Life.

When hearing the term sports medicine, many might think of team doctors for professional teams or reconstructive surgeries from high school or collegiate sports injuries.

But for those who have similar injuries to those sustained on the field, sports medicine is typically the best choice to get the patient moving again. 

“Anybody can tear their rotator cuff whether they’re an athlete or not, so we’re the ones that take care of that,” said Dr. Vonda Wright, an orthopedic surgeon and chief of the Northside Hospital Sports Medicine. “Anybody can step off a curb wrong and tear the ligaments in their knee. Usually, it’s a soccer player playing a game, but sometimes it’s just a clumsy person, and they come to sports medicine for instance. It’s really about the kind of injury it is.”

In August, Northside announced Wright had been hired at the hospital to head up the new Sports Medicine Network and combine expertise from the three of the system’s practices —Northside East Cobb, Northside Cherokee and The Orthopedic Sports Medicine Center of Atlanta — to provide care across the system’s locations.

“Sports Medicine is a part of orthopedics that takes care of people from little-bitty kids on the soccer field, all the way up to masters athletes who are 90 running in races and everyone in between,” Wright said. “Only a small portion — about 1 percent of all the athletes we take care of — are truly professionals, the rest of them are mortals like you and me who are just active and using mobility and smart nutrition to live a great life.”

Wright said the system currently has 15 sports clinicians and 10 locations and said the goal is “creating a comprehensive sports medicine program that is not only surgeons but is non-operative sports medicine doctors,” including professionals with experience in ultrasounds, orthobiology, sports nutrition and sports psychology.

“There is no avenue of a person’s health that we do not cover,” she said. “We have a whole group of partners that if you need a dermatologist, we’ve got the guy for you. If you need an internist, we’ve got the gal for you because we want care to be all in one place and for it to be easy.”

She said she likened the system to that of a professional sports team and said she believes young athletes who have more of a future should get the same care.

“On a professional football team, there is a dentist, there is an eye doctor, there is an emergency room doctor, there is a concussion doctor,” Wright said. “There are sometimes 12 clinicians on a professional team mandated by the league. It does not make any sense to treat our kids or our high school kids or even our college kids differently.”

At the Northside Forsyth Campus, the team uses the 2000 Building, a new 135,000-square-foot facility which offers programs for physical, occupational and speech therapy, stroke rehabilitation, a therapy pool with an underwater treadmill, a surgery center for out-patient hip and knee replacements and an imaging center.

Wright said an important component to the team is not letting egos get in the way and sending the patient to the doctor with the most expertise.

She used a recent example of a softball player whose injury Wright could have operated on but decided to pass to a specialist.

“If you come to me, and there’s somebody better to do what you need, then we’re not going to be selfish like that because it’s not about us. It’s about you,” Wright said.

Wright said the eventual plan is to serve the highest levels of athletes.

“We take care of about 14 high schools in the region and two colleges,” she said. “We’re newcomers to sports, so someday we will take care of pro teams here. Our goal is to build a campus because that’s what I know how to do and that’s why I was brought here.”

Before coming to Atlanta, Wright served as head of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s Lemieux Sports Complex. She said she practiced at the hospital for 13 years and one of her last undertakings was building the sports complex, which attracted Northside to build their own sports medicine network.

“During that time, I did a lot of really fun stuff,” she said. “I was the team surgeon for the University of Pittsburgh football team, and we got to go to a lot of bowl games. That was fun. I was head surgeon for some of the Olympic teams at the University of Pittsburgh. I served as medical director for the Pittsburgh Triathlon.

“I’m a world rugby doctor, which means I get to go all over the United States and take care of the U.S. national team as well as some really big tournaments, including the World Cup last year in San Francisco. You think SEC football is tough, rugby players are incredible.”

Wright received her doctorate of medicine from the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Medicine after earning degrees from Wheaton College and the then-Rush Presbyterian St. Luke’s Medical Center, now known as the Rush University Medical Center. 

She completed her residency in orthopedic surgery at UPMC and is board certified in orthopedic surgery and sports medicine and is a fellow with the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgery, the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine and the American Orthopaedic Association.

“I’m in the fortunate position to be old enough that if orthopedics was a family, my grandfather would have invented the field. Not literally, but I am one generation from the origin of the field,” Wright said. “My mentor’s mentor, who was one of the founders of orthopedics, said, ‘If you take care of the patient first, the patient will take care of you,’ meaning sometimes our egos want us to put ourselves first, but when you put the patient first, it will all be fine.”

Since 2006, her research has focused on active aging. Focusing on active seniors, she said she found there was “a myth in this country and abroad that aging is the inevitable decline from vitality to frailty and that most people spend about 20 years dying.”

“What I found, in summary, is there is no age or skill level that we cannot harness the power of our bodies to rejuvenate,” Wright said. “From the muscular level, we can build new muscle. From the bony level, we can maintain our bones. At the cellular level, we can activate our stem cells to act younger, and we can maintain our brains by investing in our mobility every day.”

More or less, to use the old idiom, people don’t stop playing because they get old, they get old because they stop playing. 

Wright has authored four books, mainly focused on active aging: “Fitness after 40,” which was later revised to “Fitness after 40: Your Strong Body at 50, 60 and Beyond”; “Guide to Thrive,” a four-step guide to improving health; “Younger in Eight Weeks”; and “Masterful Care of the Aging Athlete,” a textbook.

In April 2019, she will debut a new book, “A Parent’s Playbook for Raising Healthy Athletes,” which she said she wrote from both a medical and parental perceptive, as she and her husband — two-time Stanley Cup winner Peter Taglianetti — have raised a blended family of six athletes. 

“Right now, there is literally an epidemic of overuse injuries in young athletes because we are playing them year round, we specialize too early and a variety of other parenting activities that really are not benefiting our children,” Wright said. “Because in reality, when you pole professional athletes, for example, you take the Pittsburgh Penguins, they didn’t specialize until they were 16. The greatest hockey player in the world, Sidney Crosby, played baseball until he was 16. We’re asking our children to subspecialize when they’re 11 or 10 and play them year round, it’s a disaster.”

She said the network is also working on an education campaign with pediatricians and parents to let them know sports medicine doctors are capable of looking after them.

“All fellowship-trained sports doctors have significant experience taking care of child athletes,” she said. “Interestingly, many pediatric orthopods have a wide experience taking care of things like scoliosis and congenital deformities, but not as much experience taking care of young athletes.”

Regardless of age, Wright said there are four main things everyone can focus on to improve health: find a way they enjoy moving for an hour a day; dieting, especially by eliminating sugar; resting; and being active in social groups.

“If people would do those four things, it would go a long way,” Wright said. “That’s how we should start our new year.”

For the importance of social groups, Wright said even watching sports can be a healthy activity.

“Social groups are very important. Isolation is detrimental to health, so that’s why sports teams are so amazing,” she said. “Whether you are a fan of sports time like [Atlanta United supporters] Footie Mob or Resurgence or Terminus Legion watching the MLS team, that interacting is good for your health of any kind. Whether you’re watching SEC football from the stands or playing it, it is good for everything that is going on.”

While watching sports for health might be easy for some, cutting out sugar will likely be more difficult, but Wright said the impact is tangible. 

“I’m an old athlete, and I hurt all the time,” Wright said, “but when I am not eating sugar, I don’t feel my body. It’s like I’m 26 again. Sugar is a huge inflammatory, and it causes lots of pain. If you want to get out of musculoskeletal pain, stop eating sugar.”