LEXINGTON, Ky. — Bob Thistleton just had to have the cast off his leg if he was going to have any fun in Louisville Friday night.
He sat in the training room of the University of Kentucky Wildcats on a recent afternoon and thought of ways he could persuade the team physician to free him of his burden: He'd promise to be good; maybe he'd offer to take her to dinner. . . .
Dr. Mary Lloyd Ireland had temporarily turned her Orange, Calif., orthopedic practice over to her associates only weeks before. She plunged with little preparation into the life of a Division 1 football team when Dr. James Andrews, a Columbus, Ga., physician who had supervised Ireland in a sports medicine fellowship, asked her to take his place as team physician this season while he serves as consultant.
The 32-year-old Ireland admitted that she was still catching up on football lingo. But already she'd learned the adage of a successful team doctor: Know thy players.
It wasn't that Bob Thistleton was such a hell-raiser, but the defensive end he was driving to Louisville with was a self-described "hard head" who hated to acknowledge his limits whether it was on a football field or on the town.
Ireland had an inkling that Thistleton and friend would get rowdy in Louisville, and that it would be prudent to keep the leg under wraps until they returned. "You come back in here Sunday afternoon and I'll zip the cast off for you," she told the patient, who began to protest. Then she patted the player's knee, which was crisscrossed with bubbly blue scars. (Thistleton has been operated on three times in two seasons and is currently on a medical scholarship, meaning that he no longer plays on the team.)
Ireland sent him on his way by snapping her fingers followed immediately by a clap of her hands. It's a gesture common to training-room staff and signals something like: end of discussion.
Ireland is the only woman in recent history to serve as team physician for a major men's team. (There apparently was a woman doctor for the Kent State football team in the '40s.) While female orthopedic residents have on occasion rotated through team rooms as part of their training, Ireland is official--she attends practices and home games, plus she travels with the Wildcats.
The consensus of trainers and players early in the season is that she may well be the best team doctor they've ever had. "You can relate to her more than you can to an older doctor," said Dan McMillan, a 22-year-old defensive guard who required knee surgery after being injured in the first game of the season. "I see her sometimes on the sidelines during a game and she's fired up," he added, with a tone of respect. "Since I got to know Dr. Ireland, she's just as cool as she can be."
Head trainer Al Green said that unlike some team physicians who show up only for the games, Ireland spends two to three unpaid hours a day in the training room.
Attends Games Without Pay
The Saturdays she spends attending games are also without pay. (Ireland is not paid a salary by the university, but makes her income from seeing players who need special attention in her temporary office in Lexington. She is also paid per procedure for surgery performed on athletes.)
In the training room, Ireland moves from athlete to athlete, keeping up a jock-like patter. She never lectures the players in a parental fashion as some doctors might. She comes across like an upbeat fan who wants her team to win, and in fact she has been a Wildcat fan ever since she was a child growing up in Lexington.
"You need to have been around athletes to do this job," said Green. "You can't understand their motivation for wanting to come back and play after being hurt unless you've been there yourself."
Ireland was a competitive swimmer for her Lexington high school. (Her parents still live in town.) After attending Memphis State University as an undergraduate, she entered the University of Tennessee Medical School, always making time in her studies to swim. She competed in the World University Games in Moscow in 1973; and she tried out for the Olympic team in 1972 and 1976. She also has played basketball and field hockey.
"I was kind of a battered-up athlete myself," Ireland said, "so I'm comfortable with athletes and can communicate with the trainers fairly well."
When it came time to settle on a specialty, Ireland considered going into pediatrics, but was ultimately drawn to orthopedics because she saw sports medicine as a field she could have fun with, she said. She did her residency at UC Irvine.