Inside NYP: Dr. Christopher Ahmad
The chief of sports medicine and New York Yankees physician on finding his passion at an early age.
Growing up on Long Island, I wanted to be a professional soccer player. I played on an Olympic development team and was recruited by Columbia University, which, in the ’80s, had the best soccer collegiate program in the country.
But I knew a professional soccer career wouldn’t last long, and I had been interested in sports medicine since the third or fourth grade. I once twisted my ankle so badly that I was crying while I was playing. After I figured out how to put hockey tape around my ankle so I could play again, my dad bought me a book about sports medicine.
I remember, as a college freshman, realizing my career goal one day, kicking balls into the parking lot of what is now NewYork-Presbyterian Allen Hospital, which was next to the soccer field. As I looked at the campus that day after practice, I thought, “You know, if I were a doctor for Columbia, I could stay involved with my passion.”
So, just as Derek Jeter wanted to be a shortstop for the New York Yankees since he was young, I wanted to be the sports medicine doctor for NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center.
Thirty years later, I’m an attending orthopedic surgeon and chief of sports medicine service at NewYork-Presbyterian, vice chair of clinical research, and the head team physician for three professional sports teams: the Yankees, the New York City FC soccer team, and the Rockland Boulders independent minor league baseball team.
Sports medicine combines the interests I’ve had my entire life. I studied mechanical engineering at Columbia because I’ve always been a tinkerer. As a kid, I took apart my mini-bike and put it back together. In high school, I worked as a mechanical assembler on large machines at an engineering company. When I was a 19-year-old engineering student, I got a job as a research assistant working with faculty in the department of orthopedic surgery, where I’m now vice chair of research. It became clear that I was interested in medicine because I loved the way the body worked.
In a way, my engineering background led me to the Yankees. During my sports medicine fellowship, I trained with the late Dr. Frank Jobe, who developed the Tommy John elbow surgery performed on baseball players. In part, because of my affinity for breaking down things, I started researching why the ulnar collateral ligament tears so often and why it takes so long for athletes to recover. Over the past 10 years, I have made personal technical modifications to the traditional Tommy John surgery to help improve outcomes.
When professional baseball players tear that ligament, their careers just disappear in front of them. As a surgeon, I can put the elbow back together. There’s nothing more special than helping athletes restore their dream of getting back to sports, whether it’s a high school player or a Yankees player.
At the same time, as I enter the second half of my career, I want to make an impact beyond individual players. Elbow injuries are an epidemic in young athletes, and I’m dedicating more of my time to research and public education.
I serve on a research committee for Major League Baseball, which is funding a multi-center registry I’ll run that will document all of the elbow injuries in youth, college, and professional athletes on a global scale. I also co-founded the Baseball Health Network, an organization that provides educational resources to help parents and coaches keep young players healthy.
I hope my research doesn’t just help the five kids who come to my office next week. I want to help 50 million kids across America by improving our understanding of elbow injuries so we can prevent them.
Dr. Christopher S. Ahmad is an attending orthopedic surgeon at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center and a professor of orthopedic surgery at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians & Surgeons. He serves as the team physician for the New York Yankees, New York City FC, and Rockland Boulders, as well as chief of the sports medicine service and vice chair of research in the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at Columbia University Medical Center.