July 25, 2007

Give Another Hoiah!

July 25, 2007

By John Gearan
Holy Cross Magazine

Healing others can bring a doctor ultimate joy, no matter who the patient happens to be. So imagine the emotional jolt George A. Paletta gets as he fixes a broken thoroughbred athlete striving to become a world champion.

Picture this: Since 1998, Paletta has been specializing in restoring very valuable body parts for multimillion-dollar athletes who refer to themselves as Cardinals and Rams. In the spring of 2003, he meets Chris Carpenter, a 6-foot-6-inch, 230-pound horse of a man considered to have tremendous pitching potential that, at age 27, has gone largely unfulfilled. Carpenter's right shoulder had been operated on in 2002 to fix a torn labrum before he left Toronto to sign as a free agent with St. Louis. The righty misses the 2003 season. On July 29, Paletta repairs the labrum -- removing irritating scar tissue from Carpenter's shoulder -- and rehabs his precious pitching arm.

In 2004, Carpenter posts a 15-5 record -- and is named the National League's Comeback Player of the Year. A biceps injury prevents him from competing against the Red Sox in the World Series. In 2005, Carpenter (21-5, 2.83 ERA) wins the Cy Young Award. Last year, the Cardinals dominate the Detroit Tigers (4-1) in the World Series as Carpenter throws a splendid Game 3 three-hit shutout.

The locker room scene is champagne-squirting bacchanal. An elated Carpenter embraces Paletta, telling him that his dreams have come true, thanks to Team Paletta's extraordinary care and skill.

Snapshots of ecstasy abound. Paletta, celebrating with his wife, Jackie, and his mother, Judy, sees his 14-year-old daughter Sarah being hugged by Series MVP David Eckstein.

"Doc, if it weren't for you, I wouldn't be here!" yells Eckstein, who played with a sore rib cage.

Jim Edmonds, the Cards' emotional leader who had performed banged up and bandaged all season, echoes Eckstein's sentiments. So do many others.

This season Carpenter is pitching with a new contract worth $65 million for five seasons. In early April, Paletta detected an impingement in Carpenter's swollen right elbow and placed him on the disabled list.

And so goes the roller-coaster ride.

Paletta now has two championship rings: one emblematic of the Cardinals World Series triumph and, another, for the 2000 St. Louis Rams NFL Super Bowl victory.

Associated with Washington Hospital from 1998 to 2005, Paletta and eight other partners now operate a new, state-of-the-art, 60,000 square-foot facility called the Orthopedic Center of St. Louis. No longer treating Rams, Paletta remains the Cardinals' main medicine man.

Life is good at the top.

Perfect for an orthopedic surgeon. All the resources money can buy. A variety of specialists on his medical squad. Trainers working on rehab daily with highly motivated patients.

The ride has been breathtaking, with Paletta cheering for athletes whose careers he has had a direct hand in salvaging: He delicately inserted two steel pins into a finger on Kurt Warner's hand so the quarterback could throw a spiral again -- and has operated on the legendary likes of sluggers Mark McGwire and Albert Pujols. As a medical student, he even treated Bruce Springsteen when "The Boss" sprained his ankle during a performance.

For Paletta, however, the most fortunate moment of his life came when he met his future wife, Jackie, a surgical nurse, during his general-surgery internship at Northwestern University Memorial Hospital in Chicago; they married in 1990. Since then, Jackie has attained a Ph.D. in nursing education from Columbia University. The couple has four children: Sarah, 14; Savannah, 12; George III, 10; and Emma, 8. A stay-at-home mom, Jackie manages the kinetic lives of this family of six better than Tony LaRussa juggles the Cardinal lineup.

Without the love and support of his family, Paletta acknowledges, he could not have built his thriving practice that involves attending to players at spring training, 81 Cardinal home games and postseason encounters -- as well as overseeing the medical needs of the Cards' minor league teams.

It doesn't get much better than this, he admits.

Except for ...

"I operate in a fishbowl," explains the good doctor. "Everything I do with these celebrity athletes is done in the glare of a national spotlight."

He has been at the epicenter of two particularly wrenching controversies. In 1998, just months after Paletta became the Cardinals' head team physician, a reporter espied a bottle of an over-the-counter supplement (androstenedione) in Mark McGwire's locker stall. That ignited a furious debate over baseball turning a blind eye to a substance banned by the NFL, the NCAA and the Olympics, due to its gateway relationship to anabolic steroids.

Paletta's public stance was that studies had not yet concluded "andros" to be either harmful or performance enhancing. That said, Paletta strongly recommended children not use the substance.

In the past year, he has testified twice before a federal panel, headed by former Maine Sen. George Mitchell, that is investigating steroid use in baseball. He has appeared as the Cardinals' medical director and as president of the Major League Baseball Team Physicians' Association.

So, what precisely should a doctor do if he detects a suggestion of steroid use?

"You can counsel a patient," says Paletta, "and point out the results of lab tests, discuss the hazards of taking any drug and advise a patient not to take them. But in 10 years as a team doctor (two with the New York Mets, eight with the Cardinals), I have never had a player tell me face to face that he was taking steroids."

Team doctors are also muzzled by an array of rules controlled by major league contracts, privacy laws and medical ethical codes. Often they cannot vigorously defend themselves when hungry media are clawing for information.

When Cardinal pitcher Darryl Kile died of heart failure in 2002, questions arose about Paletta's testing methodology. In 1993, when Kile was playing for Houston, his father had a fatal stroke at the age of 44. Paletta insisted that that the stroke suffered by Kile's father did not compel doctors to screen his son for a potential artery blockage. Some medical experts disagreed in the aftermath of Darryl's death.

Controversy and second-guessing are part of Paletta's dream job too. At Holy Cross, George A. Paletta left an indelible imprint as a student-athlete while foreshowing his enormous success.

As a premed student, he became a Fenwick Scholar and a Rhodes Scholar finalist -- and also emerged as a 1984 Division 1 Lacrosse All-American. In 1995, Paletta was inducted into the Varsity Club Hall of Fame -- becoming the first lacrosse-only athlete so honored.

Paletta knew in the eighth grade that he wanted to be a doctor -- after being treated for a broken leg that was the result of a skiing mishap. An all-around athlete at Fox Lane High in Westchester County, N.Y., he wanted to compete in a varsity sport in college.

"Holy Cross had an excellent pre-med program, and I figured I could play soccer there. It was a perfect fit," recalls Paletta.

But pre-med labs caused Paletta to miss soccer practices, a situation his soccer coach wouldn't tolerate. So Paletta turned to springtime lacrosse to get his kicks.

"Lacrosse is where I learned the joy of performing as part of a team," he says. "It is the same camaraderie, the same esprit de corps that I feel in my medical practice today.

"Everything I do is in cohesion with our team of trainers, doctors, nurses, rehab specialists," Paletta continues. "Our operating room is our clubhouse. There's a special excitement in achieving something in a group, pulling together toward the same goal."

As an athlete, Paletta calls himself a late bloomer. After a so-so first year as a midfielder, he came on late in the season to score six of his eight goals as an attacker. Coach Bob Lindsay's fire was turning the program around as he upgraded the college's schedule, gaining exposure while taking on the likes of UMass, Harvard and Brown.

Paletta always had excellent speed and his stick skills improved; as a junior, he began to absorb the subtleties of the sport. Now Paletta's most important asset resided above his shoulders: He could anticipate moves and knew where his teammates expected him to be roaming; his ability to score or set up scores with nifty passes made him a threat on every foray.

Paletta accomplished the amazing -- becoming a national star -- only the second player in recorded NCAA history to post a 50-goal, 40-assist season. His record of 98 points (52 goals, 46 assists) ranks seventh all-time on the NCAA's single-season scoring list.

He became a marked man, an All-American. In the North-South Collegiate All-Star Game, Paletta scored two goals playing amongst the nation's elite.

A few months later, he entered the portals of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore.

"Holy Cross prepared me, showed me how to achieve my goals," Paletta says. "Holy Cross was the pathway to my good fortune in life."

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2007 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.

John W. Gearan '65, was an award-winning reporter and columnist at the Worcester Telegram and Gazette for 36 years. He resides in Woonsocket, R.I., with his wife, Karen Maguire, and their daughter, Molly.