David Schneider was a sports-loving 8th grader when he saw a TV special about a famous surgeon in Los Angeles named Frank Jobe, a pioneer of sports medicine in the 1950s. Schneider remembers being captivated—and inspired. “My dad was a veterinarian and I grew up in and out of animal hospitals and doing ranch calls with him,” says Schneider. “I thought, If I can be a doctor like my dad, but take care of athletes, it must be the world’s greatest combination.” So, that’s what Schneider set out to do.
Once he’d finished medical school at the University of Kansas and completed his orthopedic training at Penn State, he turned down fellowship opportunities at Harvard and other prestigious universities to study under none other than Dr. Jobe. “He was 73 years old when I trained under him but was still the most magnificent surgeon,” says Schneider, MD, now a board-certified orthopedic surgeon who specializes in shoulder and elbow surgery at Panorama Orthopedics & Spine Center in Denver. “Dr. Jobe had these magic, inventive hands.”
Dr. Schneider would go on to fulfill his childhood dream of working with athletes—he’s served as a team physician for several professional teams, including the Los Angeles Lakers and the Los Angeles Dodgers. (Dr. Schneider continues to work as a medical consultant for the Dodgers and is one of their team doctors when they’re visiting Colorado.) And despite being a busy physician with a thriving practice, there was something about Dr. Jobe and all of the pioneers in the field of surgery that fascinated Dr. Schneider enough to write The Invention of Surgery: A History of Modern Medicine, From the Renaissance to the Implant Revolution.
“Learning under Dr. Jobe and the other famous surgeons in LA was like playing with John Elway or Joe Sakic—you just knew you were surrounded by greatness,” he says. “It was obvious that we were not just a part of history, we were—and still are—making history.” Helping to explain that history was a big motivation for Dr. Schneider to write the book. “I love to educate my patients about their condition and the ramifications of various treatments, and part of that is explaining how dramatically our interventions have changed over the last 100, 50, and even 10 years,” he says. “I almost always end up sharing little historical tidbits with my patients, which helps them understand their disease and have a new appreciation of how great it is to be living now.”
We sat down with Dr. Schneider to talk about his new book, and how surgery has leapt forward over the centuries—from the dangerous guesswork of ancient Greek physicians through the world-changing implant revolution of the twentieth century. How far have we come from those early days when hospitals were a place of dying, not a habitation of healing? And where is the practice of surgery going from here?
“My hope is that this book inspires all of us to take a moment to look at the world we live in and appreciate how far we’ve come—and wonder where we’re going.”
H&W: You open the book with a story about a man with high expectations about your capabilities as a surgeon. What do you think about the fact that most of us see surgeons as magic workers?
Dr. Schneider: We have this very complex set of expectations and assumptions about surgeons and surgery. On one hand, we expect god-like performance; we want to go in [for an operation] and have everything work out perfectly—with no pain, no suffering, and no scars. Sometimes it does all work out that way. But on the other hand, surgeons are human, and the human body is complex. I think it’s important to remember that 100 years ago, you only would’ve had surgery in extreme cases, like if you were at the edge of the cliff of death. Now, we just walk in and say, “I want my smile wrinkles gone,” or “you said my scar would be 3 inches long, and it’s 3 ½ inches long.” It’s not healthy, and it’s not realistic either.
H&W: So, what makes a great surgeon—and are you one?
Dr. Schneider: There’s definitely a spectrum of talent when it comes to surgeons. You need a combination of still hands, good eyesight, and talented fingers. You have to be smart, do well in school, and be able to memorize things. These days, if you’re really smart and a test crusher, you go to medical school. If you have enough bravado, maybe you’ll be a surgeon. Ideally, that person who becomes a surgeon also has a big dose of empathy and isn’t a narcissistic monster. But it’s tough to know who’ll have magic hands like Dr. Jobe did.
There were 11 other guys who trained with him, several of whom were the best of the best. I’ll never forget a moment during that time when I was walking down the hallway and Dr. Jobe was behind me. We passed another physician—a man who’d go on to become the top sports doctor in the world—who started nodding. I glanced back and saw Dr. Jobe pointing to me, nodding his head as if to say, “Yes. This one’s got it.”
It’s still one of my favorite moments in life.
H&W: Your book is such a thorough history of the practice of surgery. Why did you want to write it, and what was the process like?
Dr. Schneider: Studying the history for this project almost made me feel as if I got to be in the room when x-rays were first developed, or germs were discovered, and we realized something as simple as hand soap could save lives. Those were goose bump-inducing times. At every turn, researching this book prompted me to say, You know what? There were so many eureka moments when these breakthroughs happened! It filled me with wonder and appreciation.
At first, writing this book was incredibly slow going. On Saturdays, my wife and I would go for an early morning hike in Boulder, then she’d go off and have lunch with friends and we’d have plans for dinner. So I’d think, For the next nine hours, I’ll write. But I’d get done with those nine hours and I’d have three sentences. I’d write a sentence and ask, “Is that true?” Then, trying to find the answer would send me down a rabbit hole and I’d order two more books, delete that sentence, write another, and then delete that one.
For the first two years or so, I was in full learning mode. And during that time, the project felt more like an English 101 class where I was just regurgitating info. But as time went on, I started drawing lines between dots that nobody had connected before.
H&W: What do you most hope readers will take away from your book?
Dr. Schneider: In my office I have an iconic image of Buzz Aldrin on the moon, signed by Buzz Aldrin himself. The expression on his face is priceless—it’s as if he’s saying, “Look what we did as a people! We’re on the moon!”
But my favorite photo is actually the one the astronauts took minutes later, when they were back in the spaceship and Neal Armstrong is taking off his helmet. Those guys were exhausted, but the look on Armstrong’s face says it all: “We did it.”
That’s a little like what I hope you feel when you’re reading my book. I hope you say, “Wow, I’ve taken all of this for granted! I can break a bone and I’m not going to die. Or, my husband had a heart attack, somehow an ambulance took us to the hospital within minutes, and he survived.” When I was doing my fellowship with Dr. Jobe, my wife had open heart surgery after having a stroke. She was 33 years old. It all worked out, and now we don’t even think about the fact that she had that operation.
We don’t think about it because we are no longer prisoners to disease. In fact, I believe that in 50 years, there’ll be no such thing as cancer. A doctor will look at you and say, “I’m sorry, you started getting cancer 11 days ago, but we’ll give you this shot and you’ll be cured.” I think disease and degenerative conditions will be decoded to the extent that our big challenge will be questioning how old we want to be.
My hope is that this book inspires all of us to take a moment to look at the world we live in and appreciate how far we’ve come—and wonder where we’re going.
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