Emory Report
September 7, 2004
Volume 57, Number 03


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September 7, 2004
Dr. X

By eric rangus

Everyone 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 was one.

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 hear.”

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 inconsolable.
“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 Medicine Center.

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.