Elite and weekend athletes flock to Philly’s Vincera Institute and Dr. Bill Meyers — the Founding Father of core muscle injuries — for repair of what had inaccurately been called sports hernias
By Theodore N. Beitchman
CBA!!! Salary Cap!!! Guaranteed Money!!! Amnesty!!! Luxury Tax!!!
MRI!!! ACL!!! MCL!!! High Ankle Sprains!!! CAT Scans!!! PEDs!!!
A sports fan has to wade through oceans of box scores and designer statistics — WHIP, OPS, WAR, VORP, BABIP — that are hard enough to figure out. And you need an MBA and an MD to understand the arcane acronyms and terms that have made rock stars of various financial wizards, medical men and spin doctors who show up on TV to explain it all.
Now comes the sports hernia, which is not really a hernia, but more about that later.
The new term made a high-profile debut in Philly on Nov. 21, 2005 when it was announced that Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, who had driven the Eagles to within four points of a Super Bowl victory 10 months earlier, would miss the rest of the season with a “sports hernia.”
So, what for years had been described as a groin pull now had a new name, inaccurate though it may have been.
And if you are not convinced that words “sports” and “hernia” should never be used together, just ask Bill Meyers, the Philly-based doc who fixed McNabb’s core muscle issue, which is the term of art for this common injury suffered by elite and weekend warriors alike.
“The term sports hernia actually dates back to the 1950s,” Meyers says. “And it has since been banned in medical literature.”
A sports hernia is a tear to the oblique abdominal muscles. Unlike a traditional hernia, the sports hernia does not create a hole in abdominal wall. As a result, there is no visible bulge under the skin, which makes a diagnosis difficult.
“A person can tear any of the many muscles in the pelvis area,” Meyers says. “Sometimes the tears cause instability of the pubic joint and the pain continues. There is no bulge, and hernia repair does not generally correct the problems.”
In the 1970s and early 1980s, most lower abdominal or groin pain was initially treated, unsuccessfully, by performance of a hernia repair. It was not until the mid-‘80s that Meyers — who was then chief of general surgery at Duke Medical Center — and a med school student were working on a cadaver and he noticed that when he cut the rectus abdominis muscle above the public bone, “the muscle jolted back and rammed the med student’s finger, which had been placed behind the adductor muscle, into some bone with some teeth to it.”
After that discovery, Meyers developed a surgical approach for the treatment of athletic pubalgia by a combination of rectus abdominis reattachment and adductor releases/repairs.
Making Meyers the Founding Father of Core Muscle Injuries.
The Vincera Institute.
Located at 1200 Constitution Avenue.
Sounds like a political think tank in the middle of culture gulch in Washington, D. C. — you know, right next to the Smithsonian Institution and the Air and Space Museum.
But Vincera — Latin for “will conquer” — which Meyers established as Vincera Core Physicians three falls ago, is housed in the former officers club in the old Navy Yard. It is now a state-of-the-art, 35,000-square foot facility that will be home to 65 medical and therapy professionals who are at the heart of the core muscle business. The 100-year-old building has been transformed into a working facility in what is now the bustling Navy Business Center.
And, when a visitor comes to call in mid-July, just after the Vincera crew moved in, he drives by twice because it has no sign, and nothing about it says this is the home of a cutting-edge area of sports medicine.
In its anonymity, the building resembles its founder, who can sit at the bar at Smith & Wollensky eating a cheeseburger without being recognized as a world-class surgeon and a person of remarkable accomplishment. And he is adverse to blowing his own horn.
“Out of the box” doesn’t begin to describe the 63-year-old Meyers and his family. Dad Milton was a dentist in Lawrence, Mass., and mom Margaret was almost Miss Universe in 1954. But she had two kids so her cousin Miriam went to the Miss Columbia pageant in her place and won the title under Margaret’s name before winning the titles of Miss South Carolina, Miss USA and Miss Universe under her own name.
Meyers prepped at Choate and went to Harvard in the class of 1971, most famous for graduates like James Brown, a fine college hoops player and now a CBS sportscaster, and Tom Werner, chairman of the Fenway Sports Group, which owns the Red Sox and the Liverpool English Premier League soccer team.
He played baseball well enough at Choate — “the Cardinals told me they would draft me No. 1 in 1967” — and excelled as a 6-3, 185-pound Harvard soccer goalie, holding the NCAA record for shutouts. He was also offered a one-year deal from Flamengo in Rio de Janeiro for $100,000, and, “I went down there to find out how good I was, but I wound up helping out with the U. S. soccer team instead.”
While at Harvard, the intellectually curious Meyers wanted to work for the Crimson, the school paper that has given us David Halberstam, Johnny Apple, not to mention Daniel Ellsberg and a fellow named John F. Kennedy. “But I found the Crimson a little too liberal for my taste, so I headed into Boston for the Globe,” which in those days was just as liberal as the New York Times and the Washington Post.
The then 17-year-old knocked unannounced on the door of the Globe’s Tom Winship, one of the most celebrated editors in America, and applied for a job. Winship was impressed by Meyers’ initiative and gave the kid a job as an office boy for four years, which also included duty as the paper’s Harvard correspondent.
After Harvard, “I had to make a decision whether to play pro soccer in Rio,” he says shaking his head and laughing, “or go to medical school. So I chose the dark side,” which included Columbia medical school and a residency at Duke. That’s where the dark side and his sports side intersected.
“Duke had a great team physician, Frank Burnett,” Meyers remembers, “and he asked me to cover some games — until then, sports were just a hobby of mine.”
The hobby soon turned into a turn in his road. Meyers was then Duke’s chief of general surgery with the largest liver practice in the country, and was president of the American Liver Society.
“As I was training medical students in liver surgery,” Meyers says, “I had more and more core work.”
His work with athletes at Duke led to his working with SEC teams — and with the country’s foremost orthopedic sports doc, James Andrews — so it is not surprising that Meyers often sports an LSU or Alabama cap. Truth is, if he had caps from all the teams and colleges he has worked with Vincera would need a separate room to hold them all.
In the more than 25 years since Meyers discovered the key to core muscle issues by working on a cadaver, he estimates he has performed 15,000 such operations on elite and weekend athletes alike.
“Philadelphia is a great city,” Meyers told the Daily News last year. “It’s just like Boston, only warmer and there’s not as much traffic,” which means he has never had to fight the Schuylkill at the Conshohocken curve.
After Duke, Meyers returned to New England as chairman of surgery at UMass-Worcester, and he was brought to Philly and Drexel in 2001 by Constantine Papadakis, the late, great president at Drexel, after the university acquired Hahnemann in 1998.
“My job [chairman of surgery and senior associate dean] was to create a bridge between Drexel and the medical community,” he says, “and to make it solid.”
Hahnemann had been part of the Allegheny Health System, which crashed into bankruptcy in 1998, and Papadakis had been persuaded to acquire Hahnemann, an important healthcare facility on North Broad Street, by Mayor Rendell and Gov. Ridge, who added $50 million as an incentive.
“I spent 12 years at Drexel,” Meyers says wistfully, “and it was very tough to leave — a great group of people.”
Between teaching, chairing and deaning at Drexel and traveling to a slew of football games in the fall to treat players, Meyers found the time top pick up an MBA at Wharton (naturally, he was valedictorian) in 2003.
McNabb was Meyers’ highest-profile local patient. “Rick Burkholder, the Eagles’ trainer, referred Donovan,” Meyers says of the 2005 surgery. “It was an interesting case. Donovan had a really severe injury, and he had been playing in some pain before that, but it was the Dallas game that he really ripped things apart and totally avulsed the muscles from above and below. He had really done a job on it. It was similar to what we see in a lot of bull riders. They tend to just rip muscles off.”
Any sport that includes violent action like bull riding causes core muscle injuries. “Number 2 is soccer and American football, he says. “Rugby and hockey too.”
Meyers’ patients make up a veritable Gut Check Who’s Who:
Danny Briere, Jammal Brown, Sheldon Brown, Brent Celek, Kevin Curtis, Kyle Davies, Ray Emery, Robert Esche, Simon Gagne, Nomar Garciaparra, Tyson Gay, Josh Hamilton, Darren Howard, Grant Hill, Cliff Lee, Mike Lieberthal, Jamie Moyer, Trot Nixon, Magglio Ordonez, Roy Oswalt, Hunter Pence, Placido Polanco, Jeremy Shockey, Grady Sizemore, L.J. Smith, Troy Tulowitzki, Jonathan Vilma.
And that is only a partial list, which Meyers guards assisduously since not all pro athletes want it publicized that they have had physical issues — “because of the area and its sensitivity a lot of people don’t want to be examined there.” And Bryan Kelly, who performed Alex Rodriquez’ hip surgery last fall, is a Vincera physician. So are Struan Coleman and Anil S. Ranawat, each of whom come from the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York.
Meyers’ family is as achievement-oriented as he is. Wife Sherri is “the best scrub nurse in the world”; son Brian is an assistant U. S. Attorney in North Carolina who worked on the John Edwards case; and daughter Erika is an Air Force pilot.
Unlike many people who, Thoereau mused, “live lives of quiet desperation,” Meyers has managed to happily blend two of his passions into a unique career.
“But when I am watching a game on TV,” he admits with a laugh, “my wife doesn’t buy the fact that I am working.”
He gets to as many Phillies games as he can, and admits that “I like batting practice more than the games.” He was on the sidelines for the Vikings-Packers playoff game in Green Bay last January and two days later was at the Alabama-Notre Dame BCS title game with more than a rooting interest, since he had treated players in both.
By the middle of July, the Vincera headquarters was bustling with activity. And as the staff of what was then 35 doctors, lab techs, nurses, administrators, yoga instructors and nutritionists gathered in the lobby next to the galley, the wait was on for Vincera Core Physicians CEO Ann Marie O’Shea, who was returning from maternity leave especially for a team picture.
When O’Shea, who worked with Meyers at Drexel, burst in wheeling her two-week-old daughter Charlotte in a carriage, the reaction was as if this were a Thanksgiving dinner homecoming. Lots of oohs and aahs, hugs and kisses. Just as if the group were family. Because it is.
Part of the family is the Vincera Foundation, which “is dedicated to improving athletic performance, health and fitness for Philadelphia inner-city youth.” So Meyers does have a liberal lean, after all.
The foundation, whose executive director is Betsy Longstreth, former director of institutional advancement at Chestnut Hill Academy, partially funded a 21-day barnstorming tour of the Anderson Monarchs. The tour was a tribute to Jackie Robinson on the 65th anniversary of his breaking the major league baseball color line in 1947.
After hitting Brooklyn to visit Robinson’s gravesite, the Monarchs, who are based at the Marion Anderson Rec Center at 17th and Fitzwater, visited the Negro League museum in Kansas City, toured the White House and the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington and attended the baseball Hal of Fame induction ceremony in Cooperstown.
Several Monarchs players have been accepted to some of the best private schools in the area, and some have gone on to earn full college scholarships. Several Vincerans attended their opener in 2012 and took place in a dedication ceremony for former kids from the program who had graduated from college.
It’s only about four miles from 17th and Fitzwater to Vincera, but culturally the distance is a lot further. Thanks to Vincera the Monarchs kids got an experience that opened their eyes to a world they can now reach for.
Meyers and Vincera care about the core, and also have a heart.