Orthopedist Cites Key Changes in Sports Medicine

Dr. Owen Tabor Jr. and Katie Upchurch, MUS Athletic Trainer, examine the foot of DJ Walker. Photo Courtesy of Memphis University School

Owen Tabor Jr.: Changing Coaches' Minds a Key

Unlike many children who aspired early to follow a parent-physician into the field of medicine, Owen Tabor Jr. was a relatively late bloomer.

As a youngster, he had little interest in the work of his father, prominent orthopedist Dr. Owen Tabor, who has repaired or replaced the aching parts of many thousands of patients in the Mid-South over some 50 years.

"I was sort of a rebellious teen, and I had no interest in doing what my father did for a living," the son said. "I was an English major at Virginia, but then about halfway through college I started thinking about what I wanted to do for a living.

"I realized that even though my dad had never really talked to me about a career in medicine, he just loved his job. It's as simple as that. You're trying to make people feel better, and that's what appealed to me."

As a general orthopedist, about half of Dr. Tabor's practice is hip and knee replacements, while the other half is "kind of everything else." For the past nearly 20 years, he also served as the team physician for Memphis University School, where he played football, basketball, baseball and track.

He and wife Jeannie were fixtures on the MUS sidelines at football games, but last year he handed over the team-physician duties to a younger partner to free up weekends to be able to visit his two sons, Sherman at Virginia and Harrison at Clemson. The Tabors also have a daughter, Virginia, at Hutchison.

"I loved doing it, unless it was one of those cold, rainy nights in November," Dr. Tabor said with a laugh. "There's nothing better than high school sports. Kids are playing with their friends, they're playing for their school, and it's serious but not too serious. Enthusiasm is high, plus high school kids are just generally nice people.

"Most of the injuries were bumps or bruises, maybe a sprained ankle or an injured finger. There was only one time with an injury we literally called the game late in the fourth quarter and had an ambulance on the field to take a player to the hospital. It was a neck injury, and he wasn't moving his arms or legs. I remember I called down there to check on him, and they said he was doing fine and that they had let him go home."

Over the years as an athlete and as a physician, Dr. Tabor has developed some pretty firm opinions on the state of youth sports today, particularly regarding prevention of injuries.

"If you think of the list of stupid things that coaches did and believed back in the '70s and '80s, number one on the list was complications from the dehydration regimen," Dr. Tabor said. "In the eighth grade, our coach was into the no-water thing, and we would be out practicing in 105-degree temperatures. I can't believe more people didn't die from that. Nobody does that anymore.

"At MUS, we would weigh the players before practice, and they couldn't go home until their body weight was back to their pre-practice weight. They might sweat out five or six pounds of water, but they had to hydrate during practice and after practice. If you weighed 210 before practice, you didn't go home until you weighed 210 after practice. You'd have all the water and Gatorade you could drink."

He notes that the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association heat policy requires coaches to provide players with ample amounts of water and regular breaks during practices. If the heat index exceeds 104 degrees, outside practices must stop.

"They'll have practices earlier in the morning or later in the evening, and in August and September they've delayed games until 8 o'clock when it's cooled down," Dr. Tabor said. "That's definitely an improvement that they're paying more attention to dehydration. You can die from heat-related stress."

Another advance is the closer attention being given to concussions, a sports medicine topic he puts at "number one on my list." He said the damage from repeated head trauma found in the brains of deceased NFL players has rightly gotten the attention of the sports world.

"That set off major alarms, and now team physicians worry about it, NFL coaches worry about it, and teenagers don't worry about it because they don't worry about anything," Dr. Tabor said. "They've developed protocols, and they're getting better all the time. We probably need to be more careful than we probably already are, and we're already being super careful about it.

"Before that, as soon as they could see straight, the player would go back in the game. That's the way everybody was treating them. The first time I remember it showing up was in 2004 in a state championship game, and after a play early in the game our starting nose guard was confused and wandering around a little bit. I checked him out and told the coach I didn't think he should play anymore, but that's the first time I remember concussions even being a topic."

Adding to the problem is that today's bigger, stronger, faster players means more-violent collisions on the football field and, Dr. Tabor notes, a few inches below the fluffy, green turf on the artificial playing surfaces usually is concrete.

One easily avoidable problem that he sees all too often is the repetitive-stress injury of young athletes who unknowingly jeopardize their careers by playing just one sport and playing it year round. Young pitchers and tennis players are especially at risk.

"From a doctor's perspective, I think focusing on one sport is a terrible idea because you're putting stress on certain joints if you're doing the same thing over and over and over again all year," Dr. Tabor said. "Even if your kid really loves that sport, they should absolutely take some time off. Maybe there's some other sport they're great at.

"The number of 12-year-old heroes who come in my office with elbow or shoulder pain and who are out of baseball by the time they're 16 is saddening. Until they're 16 or 17, they should play the sport of the season. Bob Gibson and Nolan Ryan and those guys used to throw 300 innings a season, but I guarantee they weren't throwing baseballs 12 months a year when they were growing up."

Another passion of Dr. Tabor's is the Church Health Center, which provides primary healthcare for low-income, uninsured working people. He says fixing knees and hips for patients with limited resources may be the most rewarding part of his practice.

"A whole lot of doctors in Memphis volunteer their time at the Church Health Center, and no one has to convince them to do it," said Dr. Tabor, whose father also was involved with the CHC. "I'm not paid for any of it, but a sincere thank you or a handshake or an occasional hug in the middle of the day is pretty nice when the rest of it is insurance claims and pre-certifications."


Church Health Center

Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association

Memphis University School, www.musowls.org


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Church Health Center, Dr. Owen Tabor Jr., Memphis University School, Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association
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