Orthopedic Surgeon Swims with the Sharks

Orthopedic surgeon Bert Mandelbaum is a pioneering researcher and the creator of a program that has drastically reduced ACL tears among young female athletes.

Historically, the expression “swimming with the sharks” has meant engaging in some dangerous activity. But Bert Mandelbaum, MD, DHL, an orthopedic surgeon and co-chair of medical affairs at the Institute for Sports Sciences in Los Angeles, literally swims with the sharks as he travels the world with his son, Jordan.

“I have some fears, but also respect,” Mandelbaum says. “I’m not a thrill seeker. I’m a naturalist who appreciates predators. And I’m always looking for the next adventure.”

Mandelbaum’s interest in sharks and marine biology dates back to his adolescence. He read every book about sharks he could get his hands on. He worked as an ocean lifeguard for 6 years, spending hours snorkeling and diving, and was determined in college to become a marine biologist until a knee injury changed the course of history.

Appreciation of sports

At age 17, Mandelbaum injured his knee and required surgery. That sparked an interest in orthopedics; a spark the physician says he has seen in many athletes.

“It’s amazing the number of high school and college athletes that I see who, after their injuries, develop some element of wanting to be practitioners,” he explains. “It’s very common in that regard. It certainly happened to me.”

And the marriage of sports and medicine? For Mandelbaum, it has always been about sports.

He grew up playing and coaching sports, and says he doesn’t gravitate toward any other aspect of medicine except where it relates to sports. He recently served as the official physician for the 2014 FIFA World Cup, and has been appointed chief medical officer for the 2015 World Special Olympic Games.

“I love the challenge of the athlete,” he says. “That’s my fascination and my passion.”

But how Mandelbaum defines “athlete” is the key. He believes everyone is an athlete, not just those who compete in the Olympics or on the professional level, but also the individual who does yoga in the morning, or takes long walks in the afternoon.

“We express it in different ways, but whether it's the schoolteacher or the fireman’s son, they’re all athletes,” Mandelbaum says. “We’re hard-wired to be that way.”

Capturing the spirit

Mandelbaum’s thought process may have been cultivated during his fellowship at UCLA. It was 1985, and legendary college coach John Wooden was already retired, but the veteran of the floorboards routinely made visits to the campus, and Mandelbaum took notice.

“At a very influential time in my career, I had an opportunity to sit with him and listen to him, and then became a student and read all his writings and reflections,” Mandelbaum explains. “The pyramid of success, it had a dramatic effect on me. It has become my commandments, if you will, in terms of principles and aspects of how I run my life. And I’ve taught that to fellows and residents and patients, and so [Wooden] has been the iconic impact and mentor in my life.”

That prompted Mandelbaum to write The Win Within: Capturing Your Victorious Spirit, a roadmap to success in life, regardless of whether you are a professional athlete or a mid-level corporate executive.

“There are so many elements that people need to discover about themselves,” he says. “The book is aimed at helping people discover those elements, and integrating them into their lives. And when you’ve learned to live the life of you are what you eat, think, drink and do, you’re going to be more successful and happier.”

Adding some PEP

Mandelbaum is the pioneering researcher and creator of the PEP (Prevent Injury, Enhance Performance) program. He says it’s not unlike the philosophy of the late orthopedic surgeon Charles Henning and his work on young basketball players in Wichita, KS.

In the 1990s, Mandelbaum saw a trend among female athletes ages 14 to 18. They were injuring their knees, and experiencing ACL tears at an alarming rate. His practice flipped, from 80% of the injuries occurring among men, to 80% occurring among girls and women.

Working with a group of scientists, Mandelbaum developed a customized warm-up program, PEP, aimed at preventing knee injuries among female soccer players. The program was validated biomechanically through epidemiological studies, and the results were impressive. In the first year, the program experienced an 80% reduction in knee injuries and ACL tears, and a 74% reduction in the second year.

“The CDC got wind of that and wanted to do a randomized control trial, which we did,” Mandelbaum says. “We found a 72% reduction among collegiate athletes.”

Word has begun to spread, and Mandelbaum is now spearheading research efforts for the NFL, with the hopes of implementing the program for all of its teams.

Making an impact

Mandelbaum’s love for marine biology may have been put on hold as he built an impressive medical career, but it never went away. A decade ago he renewed his relationship with sharks, diving, and snorkeling.

“I’m fascinated by sharks, as creatures, and as apex predators,” he says. “I’ve been to South Africa, the Bahamas, and other islands. I love to observe and photograph. It’s just something inside me.”

Mandelbaum also loves making a difference. He believes that life and sports are inextricably linked, and he says the same things that intrigue him about sports intrigue him about life.

As an athlete he enjoyed making a impact, and the same is true for his career as a physician.

“I love the impact of medicine, impacting a patient in the operating room,” he says. “I enjoy the impact of changing a protocol. So, it’s the impact that makes the difference. And how can we make a difference? How can we improve the quality, safety and health of people and athletes as we go forward? And I think it’s the fun of medicine, and when I see myself and other physicians thinking the same way, it enriches their lives. Certainly, it has enriched my life.”