Psychiatrist Parlays Love of Sports into Successful Career

Despite having "zero talent" for sports, a California psychiatrist has spent much of his career working with athletes, including professional wrestlers. He says the physical trauma associated with sports is intricately connected to psychiatry.

The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. But sometimes life takes us on the scenic route. Such is the case for David Reiss, MD, a psychiatrist who has spent more than 25 years in private practice.

Reiss started college in chemical engineering, and later transitioned to biomed engineering. He eventually attended medical school at Northwestern University, but even upon graduation was uncertain as to his future. He recalls making the choice between going back to biomed engineering, or following an interest in psychiatry.

“When I look back, I don’t think I would have been very happy just being an engineer,” he says. “I was always interested in philosophy, psychology—so it’s not where I was pressured to go, but probably where I should have gone.”

Interesting Work

Reiss has evaluated and treated more than 10,000 patients from all walks of life during his 25-plus years or practice. But perhaps the most interesting grew out of his childhood interest in wrestling.

“My father, who actually was a social worker in New York, had also been an amateur boxer and wrestler,” Reiss recalls. “This goes back to the late 1950s when I was a kid. And when my mother would go out to play Mahjong he would wake me up to watch wrestling on our black and white Philco TV.”

Years later, Reiss would write a paper on how wrestling storylines are a recapitulation of childhood trauma. Shortly thereafter, he received an invitation to talk to wrestlers at an industry meeting. He has been invited back ever since, and expanded into doing wellness work with many of the athletes. There is, he explains, a natural connection between psychiatry and physical trauma.

Reiss with famed pro wrestler "Sgt. Slaughter"

“I’ve been in the workers’ comp industry in California for 25 years and a lot of that is physical trauma,” he says. “But with the athletes it’s connected in terms of the emotional trauma, physical trauma, and more recently the whole issue of head injury. And even at my practice where now I know to ask people who come in, did you play high school football? Many times I’ll get a history and can track issues that come from their athletic career, even if they never played in college let alone the pros.”

Horrific Scene

When the unthinkable occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012, Reiss was nearby in Salem, MA doing consulting work when he received a phone call. Would he come to Newtown to help the local therapists prepare for the aftermath of the shooting?

“I met with the families whose kids were friends with children who were killed,” Reiss says. “I also gave out information on PTSD, what the therapists in the area should look for. Also, differentiating between normal grief and PTSD. We put on about four open talks for the community and therapists. I was only there for one day, and I have to say it was horrific. It took me about a month to get totally back.”

Interestingly, the website that seemed to receive the most hits from the interviews Reiss conducted was a site for cross-country truck drivers. He was contacted by the outfit that ran the site for information on how to help their truckers who were on the road and felt alone and detached from their families.

“We’re in such a different world with social media,” Reiss says. “It used to be just what you read in the paper, some of which would be put on a back page, but you had to find it to read it. Now it’s on Twitter, Facebook, in a very personal way, so that there’s a much bigger emotional impact for better or worse for many of these events, whether they be tragic or not.”

Playing the Ponies

Reiss laughs when he talks about how he worked his way through college and medical school. While a student at Northwestern, both undergrad and medical, he worked nights at a racetrack in Chicago. In possibly the most interesting networking scenario ever, Reiss and his friend met the head of the US Trotting Association, who was a Northwestern grad, on campus. He got both of them jobs in the track press box.

“When I wasn’t sure what to do about medical school or going back to engineering, I took a year off,” Reiss recalls. “The job allowed me to bet. So I started serious wagering.”

But Reiss didn’t just gamble. He studied statistics, and formulated a science to the art of wagering. He did so well he was able to pay his medical school bills off his winnings.

“Given my engineering background, there was a statistical science to it, and as opposed to Vegas where you’re just playing against the house, if you put enough time into it you can do okay,” Reiss explains. “Not in any given week, but in the long run. I matured enough to know there was no security in that, so it became nothing more than a hobby afterwards.”

But it also began his love for horses. Over the last 35 years, Reiss has—at one point or another—owned interest in 30 horses in the US and Canada.

Sports Lover

Reiss still has an affinity for sports.

“I’m a frustrated athlete,” he says. “I have always loved sports, and I have zero talent. So the best thing to do is being involved in sports medicine.”

While at Northwestern medical school Reiss did a sports medicine rotation with the college’s football team. At the time, the team wasn’t very good.

“Our record was 1-10, and I did a paper on the psychological impact on football players of a losing season,” Reiss explains. “I’ve always had that interest, and it has tracked at different times in different ways.”

Even today, Reiss still enjoys going one-on-one—from a physician-patient relationship perspective, that is.

“The most rewarding aspect is working with people,” he says. “Whether it be someone coming to my office or an athlete it makes no difference. It’s a one-on-one connection and being able to make a difference.”