September 7, 2004
Volume 57, Number 03
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September 7, 2004
calls him Dr. X. He wields a scalpel. Torn-up knees are his calling
card. It’s the dossier of a James Bond villain if ever there
But in this case, the reality is much less megalomaniacal.
Dr. X is one of the good guys: John Xerogeanes, chief of the Emory Sports Medicine
Center and assistant professor of orthopaedic surgery.
“It’s Greek,” said Xerogeanes of the origin of his almost unpronounceable
surname (it’s pronounced: zer-OI-anz). “I just got born with it.
I think a lot of people expect to see a gray-haired, old doctor.”
Xerogeanes is certainly not that. An energetic, personable 39-year-old (and-a-half,
he admitted), Xerogeanes is at the cusp of a discipline that is young, technologically
savvy and well-trained.
“You are still excited about what you are doing,” he said of orthopaedic
surgeons in general. “You are current and innovative. You have to stay
on top of things.”
A specialist in knee and shoulder surgery, Xerogeanes heads up the Emory Sports
Medicine Center, one of the country’s leading centers for treatment, diagnosis
and prevention of sports injuries. Not only is Xerogeanes the team physician
for all of Emory’s athletes, but he moonlights as team physician for Agnes
Scott College’s athletes and those at Georgia Tech. With the Yellow Jackets’ 2004
college football season starting last weekend, Xerogeanes schedule has gotten
quite a bit more hectic.
“You cannot be a fan and be a good team physician,” Xerogeanes said.
He doesn’t deny that he’s a sports fan—he played linebacker
at the University of California-Davis in the 1980s—but experience has taught
Xerogeanes that fandom disappears when he steps onto the field or the court.
“There needs to be a business relationship with the coach, a matrimonial
relationship with the trainer, and you have to have an almost fatherly or big-brother-type
relationship with the players,” he said, adding that his wife of just over
a year is getting used to the fact that she will be a football widow every fall
as Xerogeanes is on 24-hour call.
“You need to be friendly with the players so they gain your confidence,
but you don’t want to come off like you are above them because it doesn’t
work,” he continued. “They have to trust you, but you can’t
be one of them, and you can’t be their buddy because you are responsible
for their care. Oftentimes you have to tell them what they don’t want to
The relationship between doctor and patient can be even tougher when dealing
with high school athletes. “The amount of pressure put on these kids is
huge,” Xerogeanes said. “You have to protect them. Sometimes you
have to say, ‘Johnny’s not playing.’ Parents try to bargain
with you, but it’s not a negotiation.”
Xerogeanes takes a hard line, but that doesn’t mean he is without feeling.
In 2002, the point guard and team captain for Georgia Tech’s women’s
basketball team, Nina Bärlin, tore her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL)
in the season’s first minute—in the same knee she’d had reconstructed
less than a year before.
“I was crushed,” said Xerogeanes, who was coming home from a Georgia
Teach football game when he received a call from the basketball team’s
trainer. Xerogeanes had performed the first surgery on Bärlin. Upon receiving
the call, he went directly to the gym to see her, and Bärlin was close to
“You don’t say, ‘Come see me in the morning,’” Xerogeanes
continued. “She wanted to talk to me. She didn’t want to talk to
her coach, she didn’t want to talk to her mom. I needed to be there.”
Xerogeanes operated on Bärlin’s knee once again, effectively ending
her collegiate career, but there is a happy second act. She is now playing professionally
in Europe. Her photo is one of the many on the waiting room walls in the Sports
Earlier this year, the center moved into the new, state-of-the-art Emory Orthopaedics & Spine
Center, but its star has been rising for some time. When Xerogeanes became director
in 2000, sports medicine at Emory was going through some serious changes. Faculty
had departed, and the discipline had to be rebuilt in facilities near the corner
of Clairmont and N. Decatur roads that were becoming obsolete.
In less than four years, a lot has changed. Come January, the Sports Medicine
Center will employ three surgeons, three nonoperative sports medicine professionals,
three trainers and several fellows and residents. There is an entire operation
dedicated to orthopaedics: bone scans, MRIs, phyical therapy, prosthetics, orthotics
and much more is available on-site in the new facility.
And the center doesn’t lack patients; Xerogeanes sees more than 100 each
week. The nonoperative professionals see 150. Utilizing the center’s two
operating rooms, Xerogeanes can perform at least 10 orthopaedic procedures in
a day. Because of technological advances, some surgeries (all are outpatient)
take just 15 minutes plus prep and recovery time.
A 1992 graduate of Emory’s School of Medicine, Xerogeanes completed his
residency at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and his sports medicine
fellowship at the Steadman Hawkins Clinic in Vail, Colo., where he studied under
some of the pre-eminent orthopaedists in the world. The patients were primarily
soccer and football players and, understandably, skiers.
“I was either going to be a football coach or a orthopaedist,” Xerogeanes
said. “I always wanted to do what I’m doing now. I wanted to help
athletes because we always had team physicians who didn’t play sports,
so they never really understood what we went through. I don’t want to forget
what it was like being one of those guys.”
When he completed his fellowship,
Xerogeanes got an offer from a ski resort to be its orthopaedic specialist, but
he was lukewarm about it. “Ski resorts
are pretty isolated,” he said. “Everybody thinks they’re great
until you live there.” Through a friend, he also heard about an opening
at Emory. Xerogeanes spoke to several Emory doctors including Scott Boden, current
director of the Orthopaedics & Spine Center, and was impressed.
“I thought their plans were interesting,” he said. “I had nothing
to lose, so I came down here and gave it a shot. I kind of came in under the
radar, but at the same time was expected to build something from nothing. That’s
where the fun and challenge came in.”
Xerogeanes’ responsibilities with Georgia Tech and Agnes Scott came later,
and they complement rather than interfere with his sports medicine center work.
“A friend of mine told me about the opening, so I sent my resume just like
every other doctor in town,” Xerogeanes said about his pursuit of the Georgia
Tech position in 2000. “[Then-]Coach [George] O’Leary said he wanted
someone who had played football in college,” he continued. That made
Xerogeanes candidacy stand out; he got the job and eventually took over the
care of all Tech athletes.
But athletes are only some of Xerogeanes’ patients. He now takes care of
many of his former teachers in the School of Medicine and their families, and
he has operated on top Emory administrators. In fact, the Sports Medicine Center’s
reputation is such that the new facility includes a special room where professional
athletes from this country and around the world can meet with physicians privately.
Another of Xerogeanes’ A-list patients was former President Jimmy Carter,
who underwent surgery for a torn rotator cuff in 2000 shortly after Xerogeanes
began his practice at Emory.
“He’s a wonderful guy,” Xerogeanes said of Carter. “I
don’t care what your politics are, he was a good person, a great patient
and a very aggressive guy. He is someone who wanted to be out turkey hunting
and working out immediately. He did great.”
The Secret Service agents in the operating room observing the procedure were
only minor distractions and the minimum to be expected when a former president
meets a guy named Dr. X who wields a scalpel.