Life Lessons from an Orthopedic Surgeon

One day in Snowbird, Utah, a snowboarder hurled out of control into one of the world’s most prominent sports medicine doctors.

Burt Mandelbaum
Bert Mandelbaum

Bert Mandelbaum,  a Santa Monica, California orthopedic surgeon, has treated famous athletes, such as David Beckham.

And he has helped create some of the most successful injury prevention programs, including FIFA11+, the program promoted by soccer’s governing body.

But on that day he was on a ski trip with his family, no doubt a much needed break from the challenges of battered flesh that dominated his work-a-day world.

Then in a flash, as he writes in his new book, The Win Within: Capturing Your Victorious Spirit (Greenleaf Book Group Press), the doctor became the patient.

The Win Within tells stories not only of Mandelbaum’s struggle to wellness but also that of many other athletes, professional and amateur, to overcome injuries. He seeks to distill those qualities for readers and argues that the same virtues that lead to victory in sports translate to success in the rest of life.

On the written page — especially when he is describing them in other people — these virtues look familiar, almost banal:

  • Exercise and nutrition
  • Optimism and hope
  • Adventure and challenges
  • Relationships and mentoring
  • Values and character

But in describing his own experience with severe sports injury — which plays out in only a few pages of the introduction — they come alive.

Unlike  most of us, Mandelbaum could diagnose his own injuries. Even before help arrived, he had pinpointed a damaged vertebra in his spine, “So this is what an L5 injury feels like,” he thought to himself as he lay broken in the snow.

Surgery Is Only the Beginning

The surgery went well. (Mandelbaum knew a specialist or two.) In a little over a week he was at home recovering. But then came the worst moment: his doctor told him he would never run again.

Running was Mandelbaum’s escape, his outlet, “intrinsic to my resilience, fortitude, and emotional balance.”

This story doesn’t have a Hollywood ending. Mandelbaum did not summon up unparalleled strength of will and prove his doctor wrong by participating in the Boston Marathon the next year. Instead he switched to bicycling. In that sense, he was defeated.

But no one could call him a loser. Anyone who has met Bert Mandelbaum — even over the phone as I have a couple of times — quickly senses that the accident took nothing away from his essential being, and that he embodies the virtues he propounds.

After only a few moments of conversation, Mandelbaum was offering to help with my own book project. When I mentioned I was traveling near Santa Monica, he was ready to drive me to the airport, or host me at his home.  I can’t help but think that kind of attitude plays a key part in his successes.

A person who can so effortlessly exude kindness and generosity — despite the demands that suffering celebrity patients must put on him, despite the exhausting pace of a high-profile career, and despite an accident that ended his favorite past time — is a victor indeed.

One thought on “Life Lessons from an Orthopedic Surgeon”

  1. I think it’s important to make sure that you take care of your body. Orthopedic sports medicine can help you keep active and healthy. After all, it can be hard to inspire yourself! Thanks for sharing!

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