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Orthopedic Surgeon Goes From the Battlefield to Sports Field


After attending the U.S. Naval Academy and serving as a surgeon in Iraq, John-Paul Rue, MD, made the shift into the field of sports medicine.

Do you remember the film, “Top Gun?” Every man who saw that wanted to be Maverick. Every man wanted to fly fighter jets.

John-Paul Rue, MD, a board certified orthopedic sports medicine surgeon with Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, was one of those men. But when he got to the U.S. Naval Academy, he had a change of heart.

He also wanted to be involved in medicine.

“I realized that medicine is one of those fields where you are constantly learning, constantly being challenged, and it’s never the same,” Rue explains. “But if I was going to be a fighter pilot I might do that for a couple of years, and after that I was either going to be driving a desk, or driving a flying bus, like an airliner. And I didn’t want to do that.”

He changed his pathway and went to medical school straight from the Naval Academy thanks to a Naval scholarship. Goodbye, fighter jets.

Focusing on Sports

Rue may have opted for a career in medicine, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t going to stay active. An athlete in high school as well as the Naval Academy, he was easily drawn to sports medicine. Helping athletes get back on the field, back to their sport, with or without surgery, was very appealing.

“Sports medicine has two facets,” Rue explains. “There’s one side which is dealing with the athletes, whether elite or weekend warriors, and the other side is the challenging surgeries that are really instrument heavy, and very mechanical in nature.”

And that was right up Rue’s alley. He was a woodworker in high school and built most of the furniture in his home using the school shop and his basement shop. Sports medicine enabled him to combine the love of sports and caring for athletes, along with the highly technical side of instrumentation required to perform surgeries.

But with sports injuries and subsequent surgeries, there’s also a mental component. And that goes well beyond the Yogi Berra expression that, “Ninety percent of sports is half mental.” As Rue explains, it’s well-documented that one of the main reasons athletes don’t go back to their sport is fear of re-injury, changing priorities, or other non-injury-related components.

“Our role as sports medicine physicians and surgeons is to acknowledge that, and to allow the athlete, the patient, to discuss it,” Rue says. “Sometimes these high-level athletes tear their ACL in the middle of a football season and they think, ‘If I get this fixed and I come back, will I be as good as I was?’”

Or, while the athlete was rehabbing, someone steps in and becomes the new number one.

“Sometimes athletes drop out because not being number one is not okay,” Rue says. “They don’t want to be number two. That’s the challenging part of sports medicine.”

Serving Country

During his tenure in the military Rue served as the head team physician for the Naval Academy. He deployed to Iraq with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom as the chief orthopedic surgeon, Charlie Surgical Company Forward Resuscitative Unit, Camp Fallujah, Iraq. He has also spent time in Okinawa, Japan.

“I did a lot of general surgery,” he explains. “I did chest tubes. I did central lines. I helped the general surgeon do vascular repairs. I helped do belly surgeries. I took out intestines. I sewed up massive wounds.”

The orthopedic injuries, he says, could wait — unless it was a vascular injury or an amputation.

“From an orthopedic standpoint it wasn’t glamorous, and it wasn’t sexy,” Rue recalls. “And it was the opposite of sports medicine.”

Still, it was a very rewarding experience.

“It gave me the opportunity to see that the medical facilities we have in the U.S. are fantastic,” he says. “That with limited resources you could still give good care. And if you know your anatomy, you can pretty much do most things.”

Keeping Up

Today, Rue specializes in the prevention and treatment of injuries related to sports and exercise. He treats patients of all ages, serving athletes ranging from the casual jogger and weekend warrior to competitive collegiate athletes.

His primary focus is treating injuries of the knee, shoulder and elbow, from ACL tears, meniscus and cartilage injuries to shoulder instability and rotator cuff injuries. As such, he’s also seen dramatic changes in technology and surgical procedures over the last10 to 15 years.

“Some of it’s better, some of it is just different,” he says. “But just because we have a better tool, or a slicker tool, doesn’t mean it’s a better tool for outcomes. And that’s the challenge. The onus is on us as surgeons to make sure that it’s not just a new widget, but that it really is safe for patients and going to offer something new or better.”

And be cost conscious.

“If you go to the big scientific meetings and walk through the aisles of companies, the technology that’s available is amazing,” he says. “The real question is, is it better than what I have now, or just cooler than what we have now?”

Still Active, and Reflective

Rue is married and the father of four children. He loves staying active, and enjoys teaching his children what he calls life sports.

“Fishing is a good life sport,” he says. “You can do that forever.”

He also reflects on his time in Iraq as one of the most rewarding in his career —despite doing just the opposite of sports medicine.

“There was no better feeling than to be involved in the care of a group of soldiers, sailors or airmen who had been in a terrible battle and then basically to save their lives,” Rue says.

He also recalls having several opportunities to phone an injured soldier’s family. To get the soldier’s mother on the phone, introduce himself, and say that her son or daughter was doing fine.

“That was truly amazing to take care of those young men and women,” he says. “And it was very humbling.”

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