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Repairing Kobe Bryant, Zack Greinke just another day's work for him

Dr. Neal ElAttrache has built a reputation as a top orthopedic surgeon to the stars, but he remains remarkably down to earth.

November 05, 2013|By Diane Pucin
  • Dr. Neal ElAttrache has performed surgeries on some of the most famous athletes in the world, including Lakers star Kobe Bryant and Dodgers pitcher Zack Greinke.
Dr. Neal ElAttrache has performed surgeries on some of the most famous athletes… (Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles…)

On Friday, April 12, Dr. Neal ElAttrache of the Kerlan-Jobe Clinic in Los Angeles slept without trouble, which wouldn't be news except for one thing.

The next day, ElAttrache had a pair of surgeries scheduled on athletes whose combined price tag this year alone is right around $48 million.

On Friday, ElAttrache knew he would be performing an operation on the shoulder of star Dodgers pitcher Zack Greinke, who had broken his collarbone in a scuffle with San Diego's Carlos Quentin.

But while he was watching the evening news that night, after a long day in surgery, ElAttrache saw the video of the Lakers' Kobe Bryant in agony because of a torn Achilles' tendon.

Just as he was starting to ponder what this all meant, ElAttrache's telephone rang.

"It was Kobe, asking if I could fit him in Saturday," ElAttrache said.

So there it was. About as busy and important a day as a Los Angeles orthopedic surgeon has ever had. That Saturday would not be spent on the golf course.


Some days are spent on a golf course, often Riviera Country Club, where ElAttrache carries a 10 handicap. He does about 500 surgeries a year and spends as much time as possible watching his three daughters play sports. His oldest, Nicole, is a senior volleyball player at Harvard-Westlake and will be going to Duke next year. She and her dad can talk for hours about her skills.

Daughter Natalie is a sophomore at Harvard-Westlake and, like her sister, plays volleyball. The youngest, Eva, is in grade school.

He met his wife, Tricia, a nurse, on his first day in the operating room at Kerlan-Jobe. Friends had suggested that they might be compatible. "The friends were right," Tricia said.

"She didn't go out with me right away," ElAttrache says, "but I wore her down."

Being married to the "surgeon to the stars" doesn't faze Tricia. After all, Tricia's sister is married to actor Sylvester Stallone; there was another doubleheader day last spring when ElAttrache did surgery on the rotator cuffs of Stallone and former California Gov. and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"I told Neal I needed surgery right away, so he told me to come in at 10," Stallone said. "He prepped me and they roll me into the operating room, and at an intersection my gurney almost T-bones Arnold. I say, 'Neal, how can this happen?' And Neal says, 'It's just a coincidence. Same day, same operation.'"

But one of ElAttrache's friends from back home in Pennsylvania said it would be wrong to think that ElAttrache is a big shot now or hangs with only the famous people.

Jim Rohr, executive director of PNC Financial Services in Pittsburgh, said ElAttrache had never been his doctor.

"But I've known him and his family for many years, and I see how he treats people. He has a passion and consideration for not just friends but patients. I've known him to go anywhere to see someone.

"I also knew Mr. [Fred] Rogers from television," Rohr said. "Who he was on TV, that's who he was. Neal is the same way 100% of the time. He's always trying to help someone and is sincere about it and not because he has the title of 'Dr.' in front of his name."


ElAttrache grew up in Mount Pleasant, Pa., a mining town of about 5,000 about an hour southeast of Pittsburgh.

His father, Selim, a Lebanese immigrant, was the town's orthopedic surgeon. The son would have loved to have been an athlete. "I tried basketball, football, baseball, everything," ElAttrache said, "I just wasn't good enough."

But he also became interested in watching his father make athletes better. These weren't multimillion-dollar professionals, just his friends and neighbors, weekend athletes and high school athletes. What intrigued ElAttrache was that, mostly, his father cured them.

In a week or two or three, Selim's patients were mobile; they returned to playing sports again. Being a doctor looked like an attractive option to Selim's son.

ElAttrache did his undergraduate work at Notre Dame and went to medical school at Pittsburgh. When it was time to choose a residency program, he had his pick.

"It was a lucky time for me," the 53-year-old said recently while speaking in a Newport Beach hotel lobby after meeting with sports agent Scott Boras.

"Sports medicine wasn't a big 'thing' when I graduated, and there were basically two great sports medicine residencies to look at — with Dr. James Andrews in Birmingham, Ala., and Drs. Robert Kerlan and Frank Jobe in Los Angeles."

ElAttrache was also considering a cardiothoracic specialty, taking care of hearts and lungs. When he spoke of making his decision, ElAttrache's eyes filled with tears.

"It was a trying decision for me," ElAttrache said. "I loved cardiothoracic so much, but on the ortho side I was drawn to a group of people who were basically pretty healthy, just hurt or broken, and they would get better.

"On the final weekend both programs were being offered to me, and Dr. Henry Benson, who was a pioneer in transplants, came after me hard," ElAttrache said.

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