Olympics-bound UChicago surgeon ready for 2016 Games

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Sherwin Ho, MD, (second row, white shirt, to the right of the white mascot) and the Chinese women’s volleyball team

When it comes to who he’s rooting for the 2016 Olympic women’s volleyball games, Sherwin Ho, MD, doesn’t mince words.

“I’m 100 percent behind China,” he said. “They’re my team!”

Ho, a professor of orthopaedic surgery at the University of Chicago Medicine, is team surgeon for the Chinese squad. A long-time sports medicine specialist, Ho consults several times each week with staff in China and travels to the team’s training base in Beijing at least four times a year. He also flies to major tournaments.

Sherwin Ho, MD

A volleyball player himself, Ho’s spent decades working with amateur, collegiate and elite athletes since attending medical school in Hawaii where the sport is particularly popular. He worked as one of several surgeons caring for the American women’s team before joining the Chinese program when he was recruited by Coach Jenny Lang Ping.

When he’s in the U.S., Ho stays in touch with the Chinese team’s general practitioners, coaches and trainers as he orders and reviews scans on the squad’s roughly 30 athletes. Several players have traveled to UChicago Medicine for care, although he’s also traveled to China to care for players. Integrating western and traditional Chinese medical techniques, the goal is simple: make sure the women are at their best for the grueling months-long season.

We spoke to Ho about his role with the team, his predictions for Rio and his advice for weekend warriors.

Science Life: What’s your job with the Chinese women’s volleyball team?

Sherwin Ho: I’m the team orthopedic surgeon. I have an athletic trainer who lives and travels with the team who I talk to throughout the week. He helps me track players’ health and injuries and how they’re recovering. I get X-rays and MRIs taken in China and have those sent to me here in the U.S. After that, I evaluate players and direct their treatment. For serious injuries, I fly to China.

How is this different from your work with the American team?

I’m much more involved and have much more responsibility than I did with the American team. With USA Volleyball, it’s a pool of physicians who volunteer to cover the team. With the Chinese team, I’m the only orthopedic surgeon, so I’m responsible for taking care of any serious injury and I do all the surgeries.

Volleyball doesn’t have the following in the U.S. that it does in China. How big is the sport there?

Coach Jenny Lang Ping is an icon. She was the star player when China won their first gold medal in the 1984 Olympics, which for China was their coming out party. Every Chinese person who was alive then remembers where they were when the team beat the USA for that medal. Women’s volleyball has been hugely popular in China ever since.

How do you navigate the differences of traditional Chinese medicine with sports medicine?

We seem to have found the right balance. Our trainers work with me and with the two Chinese physicians who practice traditional medicine and work as general practitioners. It’s great that we’re able to combine traditional care with state-of-the-art, modern sports medicine.

How’d you get involved with volleyball?

Growing up in Hawaii, beach volleyball was a big sport. I played throughout college and medical school. And I helped take care of the University of Hawaii volleyball team when I was in medical training. So I’ve always been involved in volleyball and taking care of teams.

Do you think it helps when sports medicine doctors are athletes themselves?

Absolutely. You don’t get it unless you play. It helps you understand the mindset of the players and what their needs and goals are. If you know what’s involved in hitting a volleyball or blocking a volleyball, you have a better understanding of what the demands are on a shoulder.

What are the common injuries for volleyball players?

There’s a lot of overuse injuries – repetitive stress injuries from jumping and landing, particularly to the knee and cartilage. You also have labral tears in the shoulder, rotator cuff issues and shoulder tendinitis. Then there are traumatic injuries that happen when someone lands off balance and tears a ligament or has a concussion. In most cases, though, only the best athletes make it to this level. That’s, in part, because they’re the ones who are the most injury-resistant.

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Sherwin Ho, MD (far right) with the Chinese women’s volleyball team

Does working with elite athletes impact how you care for other patients?

Definitely. These athletes will put your treatment methods and your surgeries to the ultimate test. Nobody is going to demand more out of a shoulder than volleyball players on one of the top teams in the world. If something works with athletes of this caliber, we know it’ll be effective on other patients.

You’re also involved with collegiate teams?

I’ve been one of the team physicians for Concordia University for 25 years and I’m one of the physicians for varsity athletes here at the University of Chicago.

You’re Chinese-American, an American citizen and employed by the Chinese team. Any conflict about who you’re going to root for in Rio?

I want all of our athletes, both from the USA and China, to be healthy and safe and do well. But I’m clearly rooting for China. They’re my team!

Do you do anything special when you watch a game?

I take a lot of Maalox and Zantac! It’s really stressful to watch those games because I’m so invested in this team and I’ve worked so hard to get the girls healthy, keep them healthy and fix them when they’re injured. But thankfully, being a team physician means I’ve also got to have some detachment. When I’m watching a game, I’m always looking for injuries and to see if our injured girls are doing OK.

Who do you think has a shot at the gold?

The USA and China are the two favorites. Who wins is a really toss-up. But Brazil is also really strong. It’ll be a really interesting Olympics.

China’s population, like America’s, is aging, yet older people are staying active longer to stay healthy. What advice would you give people who want to maintain an active lifestyle?

It’s really important as you age to stay active. I think sports are one of the best ways to stay in shape, stay active and prevent injuries. People are worried about falling and breaking a hip, but exercising and staying strong improves balance, strengthens bones and builds muscle. It will actually help keep people from falling and getting a serious injury. And it’s good for the heart and lungs.

What are some suggestions you can offer non-athletes, or casual athletes, who want to participate in recreational sports?

Take your clues from the elite athletes, even if you’re not at their level or you can’t devote as much time to your sport. Learn from their habits and technique. Using proper mechanics will keep you from getting injured. In the pre-season, get ready and get in shape for your sport. Then once it comes to game day, make sure you eat a proper diet and warm up. Then cool down, ice your joints and make sure to stretch.

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