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An old doctor lends a hand at high school football games

Dr. Jerry Bornstein, a semiretired orthopedic surgeon, has been volunteering his services on sidelines for five decades. He treats injuries slight and serious, all the while fearing the worst — which, thankfully, has never happened on his watch.

October 22, 2010|By David Wharton

The old doctor stands on the sideline, off by himself, watching and listening.

Sometimes he can see torn ligaments in the way a quarterback falls to the turf. Or hear a potential concussion in the clatter of helmets and shoulder pads.

"I watch a game differently than most people," he says.

When a lineman comes up limping, Dr. Jerry Bornstein makes room on a bench that will serve as his examining table beneath the dull glow of stadium lights. His fingers poke at the player's sore hip, eliciting a groan. He must lean close to ask questions over the blare of a nearby marching band.

For five decades, the 79-year-old Bornstein has spent his Friday nights volunteering on the sidelines at Los Angeles high schools. Something more than charity keeps him going, this semiretired orthopedic surgeon who once played fullback and never quite got football out of his system.

He grins: "People think I'm crazy."

In an era of budget cuts and teacher layoffs, Bornstein does more than give his time. He has assembled a crew of 60 or so medics — mostly athletic trainers and emergency medical technicians — to care for injured players at games throughout the city.

"At a lot of schools, there's not a lot of money," said Jim Rose, the coach at Birmingham High in Van Nuys. "He makes a huge difference."

Bornstein showed up at Birmingham on a recent Friday to supervise one of his new medics. The home team faced a stronger, faster opponent in Corona Centennial, and each booming collision seemed to inflict new injury.

There was no time to linger over that bruised hip. Bornstein gave the lineman a quick pat and a kind word, as he often does, then called out to the medic.

"We need some ice for this," he said.

Bone and muscle are easy. It is the possibility of catastrophic injury that worries him.

"I'm waiting for the unconscious kid," he said. "I'm waiting for the kid who gets up and takes a few steps, then keels over dead."

It makes sense that a former athlete might gravitate toward orthopedics, fascinated by tendons and ligaments.

In the late 1950s, while still a resident at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, Bornstein began hanging around games at his alma mater, Fairfax High, and volunteered to serve as team doctor. The school gladly accepted, even if his former coach, Frank Shaffer, remained skeptical.

"Maybe it was because I could never find the three-hole when I was a fullback," Bornstein said. "I'd examine a kid and go up to the coach and say, 'Joe's got a sprained ankle.' Then I'd turn around and Shaffer would be checking the kid himself."

Bornstein felt good about helping athletes on teams that did not have medical staffs looking after them. Patrolling the sideline kept him connected to football, and the adrenaline rush of performing under pressure exhilarated him.

One night early on — the seasons tend to blur — a player fell screaming in pain with a bone sticking out of his shin. Bornstein had to quiet those screams before splinting the leg.

"Let's relax," he recalled saying. "Let's get this done."

His personality — casual, friendly, talkative — had a way of calming players, getting them to answer questions as if they were in a doctor's office. If they resisted, Bornstein learned to ice them down and return five minutes later when they were more cooperative.

Friday nights also taught him to make do with scant resources.

When a player badly fractured his arm, Bornstein enlisted a bystander to help work the bone into place, then fashioned a splint from tape and a handful of wooden tongue depressors.

Looking for a way to immobilize broken hands with the proper curvature, he had players grip a tennis ball and then he wrapped the ball and fingers in tape.

"Use whatever you've got," he said.

At the Birmingham game, he showed a few tricks to first-year medic Emma Hartel, teaching her how to test a painful shin, to distinguish between a fracture and a deep bruise.

"The man knows everything," said Hartel, an EMT who works for an ambulance service. "It's ridiculous."

The Birmingham team trudged quietly into its locker room at halftime, having fallen behind, 41-0. For Bornstein, those few minutes offered a chance for follow-up examinations.

First, he pulled the coach aside to ask about the injured players: Which ones tended to complain and which might downplay their pain? This information was crucial because, with no X-rays at his disposal, he needed to gauge what the teenagers told him.

A lineman with a sore knee lay down between rows of P.E. lockers, letting the doctor tug and pull at his leg. His face twisted with pain but he barely said a word.

Bornstein began digging around with his fingertips again, searching for a particular ligament that should have felt hard and thin as a pencil. An assistant coach stopped by to get the bad news: The ligament felt mushy, and it was perhaps torn.

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