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Team doctor just as competitive as players

Gill connects with all his patients, and he’s as competitive as the team he treats on the field

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / March 27, 2011

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The man stuck his head inside the office door, inquiring whether the doctor was in. His arrival was unplanned — a drop-by visit to the fourth-floor suite of Red Sox medical director Thomas J. Gill at the Massachusetts General Hospital Sports Performance Center. The doctor, bustling around the offices and examination rooms in his white coat, appeared and apologized to another visitor.

“One of the Patriots just showed up,’’ Gill said.

This is hardly an isolated incident. Gill is accustomed to having Red Sox and Patriots and Bruins stop by his office, often without announcement and often during a consultation with a “regular’’ patient, medical research, or the thousand other things that occupy his time. He handles the interruption deftly, apologizing again when he sits to do an interview more than 45 minutes late.

It’s understandable, for a man weaving his way through three day jobs, darting from his primary practice at Mass. General through rush hour to his evening shift in a back office at Fenway Park (or at Gillette Stadium).

And of course there’s his work doing research, seeking new surgical methods for knees and shoulders, seeking recommendations for Little Leaguers’ pitching loads, seeking ways to get the casual athlete back on the links.

And it’s the connection with the patient who isn’t a pro athlete that perhaps hits closest for the former Harvard rower.

“One thing I’ve been struck by is people I’ve sent to him saying, ‘Well, I felt like I was Tom Brady, he seemed to care so much as to whether or not I could play again,’ ’’ said Dr. David Altshuler, Gill’s roommate for three years in medical school and the deputy director of the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT. “I think he feels that very strongly, that he wouldn’t be a good doctor to the players if he didn’t treat them like everyone else. He doesn’t see his practice in the sports medicine center primarily for the athletes. It’s not there for two teams. It’s there for anyone who needs sports medicine.’’

Even though, yes, sometimes those linemen and pitchers get priority. And sometimes those priorities result in better care for the rest of Gill’s patients, and the 800-plus surgeries he performs every year.

“It challenges you,’’ Gill said. “You have to be the best. You can’t look a player in the eye and [fake] your way through it when you have a 300-pound guy looking at you going, ‘What’s wrong with me’ and ‘How am I going to get better?’

“You have to keep up with the literature and keep up with the research, doing the research. You simply can’t not know the answer.’’

He is here — in this spacious office overlooking Cambridge Street, a significant improvement over the “small, kid’s-sized desk’’ that physical therapist Scott Waugh remembers he once had — for many reasons: because of his physician father who still does research alongside him, because of his desire to overcome his own injuries, because of his impatience.

“I said, ‘There’s got to be a better way to treat this than what I’m getting right now,’ ’’ said Gill, of care he received. “I decided I wanted to go into a field where I could make a big impact on someone’s life in a defined period of time. I was thinking about cardiology for a while, too, but you give someone some pills or get them on an exercise program and it takes 2-3 years to see their cholesterol drop, and how this is going to help them in the long run. I kind of like to have an impact right away.’’

And that’s not just with his patients. Gill spent his first year of medical school encouraging and tutoring Altshuler until the 135-pound self-professed “geek’’ could lift more than 200 pounds. Altshuler had been impressed when he could clear his weight, and didn’t believe his roommate’s assumption that he could get to 200. Until he did.

Waugh, who works with the Red Sox and Bruins and has been a close friend of Gill’s for more than a decade, contends that the doctor is particularly competitive. He wants to be the best. He wants to win. Up to a point.

“There’s an element of him that’s not a competitive person,’’ Altshuler said. “He wants other people to be great, too . . . I have friends who you go out for a ride with them and they want to make sure that they’ve crossed the finish line first. I think of Tom as someone who’d be like, ‘Come on, man, you can do this. Get up here with me.’ ’’

From all accounts, this is the way Gill operates. He has built a team at Mass. General that would be the envy of many other professional teams, with specialists for nearly every body part. He has worked to improve orthopedics, with new minimally invasive techniques, with treatment of soft tissue injuries, with research in biomechanics and ligament reconstructions, with ways to measure arm angles that can be taken at the start of the season, at the middle, and at the end to determine at-risk pitchers.

“It’s a constant challenge to try to stay the best and be the best,’’ Gill said. “That’s what I embrace. That’s one of the things I love the most about it. You can’t get lazy and get set in your ways — do it the way you learned during your training because that’s the way you were taught 20 years ago. You just can’t do that. You always have to be in the front pushing the envelope.’’

Gill has risen to an esteemed position in Boston sports, a position in which being unseen is prized. Except in 2010, with injuries ravaging the Sox, he was hardly unseen. Gill went so far as to talk to reporters via teleconference, an almost unheard of event around Fenway Park.

There was blame. There were sides. There were too many surgeries and MRIs. There was misinformation, particularly regarding Jacoby Ellsbury’s broken ribs. Still, Gill has no regrets about the standard of care that was given. While he might change his communication with players and staff, or be more understanding about tests done for “peace of mind reasons,’’ he said he wouldn’t do anything differently in terms of the medicine.

“I think last year the public perception and what was reported did not necessarily reflect what actually was going on,’’ Gill said. “And you can’t blame the media for that. The public only knows what they’re told and the media only knows what they’re told. I think there’s a fundamental difficulty sometimes when you want to be forthright about talking about peoples’ injuries, but there’s a lot that goes into talking about injuries.’’

He admits there was miscommunication, and says that will change.

“There were a lot of times where he was reflected on poorly and that wasn’t really accurate,’’ Waugh said. “He’s not in the position, nor is it in his personality, to refute that. Just, it comes with the territory. Live by the sword, you die by it. If you want to be in practice in a glass house, the way we are here, you have to feel the heat.’’

For Gill, the standard of care doesn’t change, whether his patient is wearing jeans, a three-piece suit, or a Red Sox uniform.

“It’s like anything else in life,’’ Gill said. “It’s not rocket science. My father told me from Day One, when in doubt do the right thing and the chips will fall where they will, but you’ll never look back and regret it. And that’s what it comes down to.’’

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com.

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