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A Cut Above : Injured Athletes Feel Lucky to Be Patients of Dr. Frank Jobe

June 30, 1991|BILL PLASCHKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He was 19 and sleeping in a foxhole near Bastogne, Belgium, when he was awakened by the rumble of German tanks.

He was a soldier, but not a fighter. He was a country boy who would write letters to his parents about being scared to death.

But there he was, looking up at German soldiers who had climbed out of those tanks and pointed their weapons at his head.

He was captured. He and a buddy huddled together and watched as the rest of their platoon was captured as well. They stared at one another. They stared into their dim futures. They wondered what to do.

Frank Jobe chose flight.

His buddy shoved one of the distracted German soldiers. Jobe saw an opening and dived down a nearby hill. His buddy followed.

They rolled to a road, where they spotted an oncoming truck. Without looking closely, they jumped on.

"I didn't know if it was one of their trucks or our trucks," Jobe recalled, smiling. "Looking back, I guess I was pretty lucky it was one of our trucks."

It is no accident that nearly 50 years later, if you're a pitcher and your livelihood depends on somebody cutting into your shoulder, this is the guy you want holding the scalpel. After all, he is lucky.

He is one of the most important, visible members of the Dodger organization. Yet to the players, he is known simply as the eyes behind the mask.

"I think that's what many of us think of when it comes to Dr. Jobe," said Jay Howell, a relief pitcher who underwent two arthroscopic knee operations last year. "We don't think of his personality, we think of those eyes, blinking above that mask, blinking, blinking, blinking, right before he goes down to open you up."

Even the athletes who have brought him the most fame feel they barely know him.

"I have been out with Dr. Jobe socially just once," Orel Hershiser said. "But that was only because we were both at the same place at same time."

Behind the mask there is the face of a renowned orthopedic surgeon who returned to the news this summer after performing landmark shoulder reconstruction that returned Hershiser to the mound for the first-place Dodgers.

Jobe has ministered to other injured sports stars such as Tommy John, George Brett, Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, Jim McMahon, Jerry Pate, Paul Azinger and Ivan Lendl.

And he has saved the careers of hundreds of other athletes since joining Dr. Bob Kerlan in 1965 to form what is now the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic.

Jobe, 65, speaks with the confident authority of a healer, but has the accent and appearance of a country doctor.

If Jobe were a baseball player, he would probably be a right-handed pitcher. And a left-handed pitcher. He is ambidextrous as the result of a broken arm he suffered in the second grade.

As a pitcher he would also be a fast worker. Remember the Hershiser surgery, the operation that was publicly discussed and diagrammed for nearly a year? Jobe finished the operation in 45 minutes. That is half the time it takes some of his peers.

"Unlike many other doctors, when he does surgery there is very little wasted movement," said his son Christopher, also an orthopedic surgeon and one of Jobe's four children.

"It's a little bit like somebody doing the hula. Everything he does means something. It looks like it's going slow, but it's actually going very fast."

But he sometimes can't stay awake during staff meetings, and used to employ a driver because of a tendency to doze off behind the wheel.

Several years ago it was discovered that Jobe has narcolepsy, a condition characterized by brief but sudden attacks of deep sleep.

It never affects him during surgery, but only because he is standing up. He has fallen asleep during everything from lectures to sales pitches.

"It happened once when these sales representatives were at the research lab, showing us this important equipment," Jobe recalled with a chuckle.

"Right in the middle of their big spiel, they looked down to see that the guy they were trying to sell was sitting in the front row, fast asleep."

Jobe needs no medication, and has since discharged his driver. But he can't rid his family of their worries.

"Sure we worry, because you can die from this," Christopher said. "We all really worry about him driving home at night. We're fortunate Dodger Stadium is a pretty easy drive from his house late at night."

Jobe handles the condition as he handles everything else, as he has handled things since leaving North Carolina at 18, the son of a postman and farmer. He doesn't like the fuss.

"I tried a chauffeur, but, to be honest, he drove me crazy," he said. "I just don't like anybody driving me around.

"Actually, I don't really think I have narcolepsy. I just doze off while sitting in a big chair in a warm room after a good meal. I think that happens to a lot of people."

He is addicted to vanilla ice cream. He orders it at restaurants, and keeps cartons of it in his freezer. After work, he sometimes dips into one before greeting his wife, Beverly.

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