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At the Top of Her Game

In the world of sports medicine, Kathy Weber, MD, MS, team physician for both the Chicago Bulls and Chicago White Sox, is a star player

You don’t need to be a superfan to know that men have historically dominated professional sports both on the field and off. But just as more women begin to share sports commentary on ESPN and sign autographs for adoring fans, an increasing number of women provide vital health care to professional athletes — both male and female — as trainers and physicians.

While she’d rather talk about medicine than gender, Kathy Weber, MD, MS, director of primary care/sports medicine and women’s sports medicine at Rush, helped lead the way in bringing about this change.

League leader

Back in 2004, Weber became the first female team physician for Major League Baseball when she and her colleagues in the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at Rush signed on to be team doctors for the Chicago White Sox. She was also one of the first two female team physicians for the National Basketball Association, caring for Chicago Bulls players along with other physicians from Rush. Weber continues in those roles today, plus she is head team physician for the DePaul Blue Demons and Malcolm X College, and a physician consultant for the Hubbard Street dance company —all in Chicago. She also serves as a member of the Ladies Professional Golf Association Medical Advisory Board and the NBA research committee.

“I never really looked at the gender component of what I do. Rather, I looked at myself as part of the team,” Weber says. “And my job was — and still is — to do the best I can do every day.”

The Major League Baseball Team Physicians Association recognized that dedication and her medical expertise in 2014 when they elected Weber president, a three-year stint in which she served as president-elect, president, and then past-president. This leadership role marked yet another first for women in professional sports.

As head of the association, Weber worked with fellow team physicians to bring players high quality medical care to ensure their safety, health, and well-being. A key component of that mission: to share important medical research and develop injury prevention recommendations and policies.

Advancing care on and off the field

Helping athletes achieve optimal health so they can play at the highest levels of sports and lead healthy lives once their careers end inspires much of Weber’s practice and research.

In fact, she played a role in drawing attention to the threat of concussions in professional baseball. “I was fortunate to be a part of a pioneering study on the rate of concussions in Major League Baseball, and we were able to identify which positions were higher risk,” she says. These findings led to rule changes designed to protect catchers from collisions at home plate.

And it was due to her and her colleagues’ work on concussion injuries that MLB changed its disabled list protocols in 2011: It created a new seven-day disabled list, allowing team doctors and injured players more flexibility in addressing injuries to the head.

Weber brings that same energy and drive to all of her patients, whatever their age or skill level. “I just want to help people have the best possible quality of life,” she says.

Learning the ropes

Weber attributes her successes to the strong work ethic instilled in her by her family, and a team-oriented approach borne from her experiences as an athlete in high school and college. Her interests in helping others and in medicine, however, weren’t initially directed toward athletes. Early on, she wanted to be a veterinarian, and later — based on the advice of her mother — she pursued a nursing degree. That experience and its emphasis on bedside manner and patient care gave Weber the tools to become a good doctor. But a career in nursing wasn’t what she ultimately wanted, so she opted for a master’s degree in exercise physiology.

Eventually, Weber found her way to Rush Medical College and earned her medical degree, then stayed at Rush for her residency in internal medicine. To combine her talents in medicine with her love of sports, she moved to California for a fellowship in sports medicine at the University of California-San Diego Medical Center.

Providing a solid training ground

She returned to Rush to join the orthopedics program in 2001. Since then, in addition to becoming part of the Bulls and White Sox’s medical teams, she and a colleague launched Rush’s primary care sports medicine fellowship program.

“Our fellows have a great clinical experience because Rush is a tertiary care center. We see all the common issues — like tendonitis — but also highly complicated problems,” Weber says. “Our fellows are also exposed to a wide range of sports — and the health concerns that often accompany them. They leave our program feeling confident that they can cover any sport they desire.”

The program is unique, according to Weber. “We have sports medicine-trained physicians from multiple specialties, allowing us to welcome physicians from all the primary care fields,” she says.

Helping girls in the game of life

While busier than ever clinically, Weber still finds time for the nonprofit organization Girls in the Game, which is dedicated to empowering girls through sports, health education, and leadership development programs.

Having volunteered for the program in a variety of ways for more than a decade, Weber currently is an emeritus board member and takes the time to meet with girls to help mentor them through various activities, including mock job interviews. “The program’s approach is really holistic; it’s about the entire girl. That said, sports — its health benefits and the life lessons that can be learned from it — is always the centerpiece.”

Inside the locker room is no sweat

While women’s roles in sports and sports medicine continue to evolve, Weber sees only the positives with respect to her gender and her ability to care for male athletes.

“I receive lots of favorable feedback from the male players I care for. In fact, I sometimes think they’re even more up front with me about pain because I am a woman. Maybe they feel a little less pressure to be tough or macho,” she says. “Or maybe,” she laughs, “I just remind them of their mom.”

Home team advantage

 As she looks at her career, Weber feels extremely fortunate.

“I landed the dream job: I have the greatest people around me, including some of the best minds in orthopedics and sports medicine,” she says. “They drive and inspire me, because they are highly motivated and doing amazing things in the lab, in the clinic, in partnership with innovative medical companies, and across all disciplines. The professionals at Rush are like a train that just keeps moving forward, and if you work here, you have to get running and jump on because they never stop in their efforts to improve patient care — whether it’s for a professional athlete, a weekend warrior, or the woman who lives down the street. And I just love that.”

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