Physician To The Stars: Sports Doc Bruce Thomas

By  //  February 12, 2013

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Man Of Medicine

BREVARD COUNTY • VIERA, FLORIDA – It’s 3 a.m. and the phone rings at the home of Dr. Bruce Thomas. He’s got a pretty good idea that a ballplayer is on the other end of the line.

Dr. Bruce Thomas of Melbourne serves as the spring training physician for the Washington Nationals major league baseball team. (Image by Space Coast Medicine)

As senior medical consultant and spring training team physician for the Washington Nationals major league baseball team, Thomas is accustomed to the rigors and demands of treating professional athletes and takes the early morning phone calls in stride.

“I just love what I do,” Thomas said. “Most of it is relationship building and getting the players to trust you enough to tell you when there is a problem. And you have to be ready for anything, including those phone calls in the middle of the night.”

A love for baseball runs through the veins of Thomas. His great uncle was New York Yankees’ Hall of Fame pitcher Waite Hoyt and his father (also named Bruce Thomas) played minor league ball for the old Boston Braves.

Confident

Growing up in Maryland, Thomas was confident that he would someday become a physician, but thought he might make it to the big leagues as a ballplayer first.

“I started out playing college baseball at Tulane University,” he said. “But when I saw how much better the guys were playing at that level, I knew I would never make to the majors.”

So he poured his heart and soul into medicine, obtaining his undergraduate degree at Tulane in biology and going on to complete medical school there in 1980.

Then it was off to the U.S. Air Force for Thomas, where he interned in family practice at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, followed by a residency at Patrick Air Force Base, which brought him to Brevard County.

He stayed on as a family practice physician for the Air Force and upon his separation from military duty, Thomas set up a private practice in Indialantic and later in Melbourne when he merged his practice with Melbourne Internal Medical Associates (MIMA).

“I had the notion to obtain a fellowship at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Medicine for certification in sports medicine and that idea was brand new at the time,” Thomas said. “It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”

Dr. Bruce Thomas gives an interview before a Washington Nationals spring training game in March at Space Coast Stadium. (Image by John Ross)

True calling

Starting out as a medical consultant for sports teams at Florida Tech University, Brevard Community College and Melbourne High School, Thomas found his true calling and his burgeoning practice now focused on both family practice and sports medicine.

He continued to learn as much about sports injuries as possible, studying with Melbourne orthopedic surgeon and University of Florida professor Dr. Ed Bittar and helping provide medical coverage for high school games in the early 1990s.

When the major league expansion Florida Marlins selected Viera as its spring training baseball site in 1993, they searched in the phone book for a local doctor who specialized in sports injuries to help out while they were here each year. The listings at that time only included one name – Dr. Bruce Thomas – and the rest is history.

Thomas logged nine years as spring training physician and medical consultant for the Marlins, earning a World Series ring when the team surged to claim the 1997 world championship and working closely over the years with the Marlins’ team physician, Dr. Dan Kanell.

While serving as spring physician for the Montreal Expos, Dr. Bruce Thomas became friends with then-Expos manager and Hall of Famer Frank Robinson. (Image courtesy Dr. Bruce Thomas)

Catching On

When the Marlins were sold and their spring training location moved elsewhere, Thomas caught on as team physician for the minor league Brevard County Manatees. Then when the Montreal Expos launched spring training here, he served as team physician and stayed on in that capacity when the Expos became the Washington Nationals in 2004.

“Baseball people as a rule are nice people,” Thomas said. “Because of the constant travel and rain delays, baseball people become great conversationalists. It’s a wonderful atmosphere to be around and a pretty interesting little niche for me.”

His experience with major league baseball led to other sports gigs too.

Thomas has served as a venue physician for the United States Tennis Association and at the World Baseball Classic international tournament. He’s been part of the medical team for USA Wrestling, a consulting physician for the China National Baseball Team through the Beijing Olympics, a member of the U.S Olympic medical team and since 2007 has served as medical director for the Ladies Professional Golf Association.

But his work with baseball players dominates much of his schedule these days.

“It’s a different kind of feeling working in baseball,” Thomas said. “In football, you just have 16 games, but in baseball these guys go out on the road for two weeks at a time and they don’t have their families with them. You get a close feeling to one another like a family in this sport.

”In football, the doctor is the enemy because with the season so short, getting hurt spells disaster. Yet with baseball’s season running as long as it does, seeing the doctor in baseball means you can get back to action that much sooner.”

Dr. Bruce Thomas won a World Series championship ring for his work with the 2003 Florida Marlins. (Image courtesy Bruce Thomas)

Best in the business

For Mike McGowan, assistant athletic trainer for the Nationals, working alongside Dr. Thomas has been a pleasure.

“He’s the very best in the business,” McGowan said. “There’s no finer doctor working in sports today than Dr. Bruce Thomas. The players trust in him, the front office respects him and the training staff counts on him. He’s in demand for a reason. He’s a tremendous asset to our organization.”

Thomas not only treats the players and their families, but his duties with the Nationals include the treatment of all employees of the team and their family members while they are here and the care of umpires in town to call the spring games.

The job entails that Thomas be a jack of all trades — giving out advice to a player waking up at 3 a.m. with an  earache or sinus infection, treating sprains incurred at a game, diagnosing an ingrown toenail or pink eye, or performing hundreds of routine physicals when players arrive in camp.

His efforts with the Nationals extends beyond the 60 days of spring training, as injured or recovering players may be here year-round or months at a time for rehabilitation and treatment. And some players and their families arrive in November to spend the winter here working out and preparing for spring training.

“Times sure have changed in baseball,” Thomas said. “In the old days spring training was the time when players rounded into shape. Now because of how much of a huge financial interest the teams have in the players, they show up in tip-top condition and use spring training to work on the finer points of their game.”

Dr. Bruce Thomas speaks to Washington Nationals outfielder Jason Werth before a spring training game at Space Coast Stadium in March. (Image by Keith Betterley)

Home base

In many ways Viera is the home base for the players. That means Thomas is constantly busy conducting physicals, documenting the slightest of injuries, and providing medical records and lab results at a moment’s notice.

It’s not uncommon for visitors to Thomas’s office in Melbourne in November to find Nationals players in uniform seeking treatment.

“The money in baseball has magnified everything,” he said. “The pressure and attention that is paid to the players through news coverage and social media is enormous. Therefore the speed of how quickly I must have answers to medical questions posed by the team must be rapid.”

Working in concert with the Nationals training staff and the team physicians based in Washington, Thomas said the quality and standards of care for ballplayers have improved tremendously.

“Advances in technology mean we now have high-definition MRIs and ultrasound available all the time almost anywhere,” he said. “Having portable ultrasound to examine an injured flexor tendon has revolutionized what I do.

“Advances in technology mean we now have high-definition MRIs and ultrasound available all the time almost anywhere,” he said. “Having portable ultrasound to examine an injured flexor tendon has revolutionized what I do.”

During the spring training schedule, Thomas usually arrives 1 ½ hours before the game begins and stays about 1 ½ hours after the game ends.

He said he couldn’t do his job without the help and assistance of an ever-vigilant training staff.

“Our trainers do yeoman’s work,” he said. “They have to be good communicators with the front office and have to be able to make a very quick diagnosis.”

With players having a vested interest in staying healthy, they rely on Thomas as an indispensable component of their careers.

“I obviously have a relationship of trust with Dr. Thomas,” said Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. “He is looking out for me, for what’s in my best interest and keeping me healthy and on the field.”

Washington Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said Dr. Bruce Thomas is always candid with him about his health and consistently offers him sound advice. (Image courtesy Washington Nationals)

Zimmerman said Thomas is always candid with him about his health and consistently offers him sound advice.

“The thing that I have taken to heart is that in my profession you have to be honest with your doctors and tell them everything so they can help you. It’s good to have that sort of relationship with Dr. Thomas and to know he’s there to help you.”

Challenges

Thomas said the most challenging aspects of his job with the Nationals involve injuries that do not respond easily to usual courses of treatment.

“Rotator cuff injuries and tendinitis are really tough,” Thomas said. “Pitching is an unnatural act and is hard on the shoulders and the elbow and causes all kinds of problems.”

He said the best part of his job is helping heal others and in some cases, saving a life.

“We once had a prospect that in doing a physical I discovered he had a testicular tumor,” Thomas said. “Finding that saved his life and he went on to be a long career in baseball and a multi-year All-Star.”

According to Thomas, the worst aspect of his job is giving a player the news he never wants to hear.

“I once worked with a player that developed a tumor in his shoulder and after surgery he never played again,” he said. “One of the hardest things for me to do is an exit physical for the team and then to tell a player the bad news that this injury will mean the end of their career.”


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