There are public service radio spots that air in many states across America, usually sponsored by the state's high school athletic association, promoting how playing high school sports builds character and a dedicated work ethic.
Who can argue with that?
Dr. Anthony Boniello of Princeton Orthopaedic Associates told Footballstories that's exactly how he was able to excel at Washington and Lee University as a student, finding his path to a medical degree while following his sports passion as a standout wrestler for the Generals.
“I think people who play sports will understand this,” Dr. Boniello said in a recent phone interview. “Growing up involved with athletics teaches you a type of work ethic. That you put your head down, focus on the job at hand, try not to get sidetracked, prioritize and get the job done.”
Playing sports in college is tough regardless of the situation. But playing a sport while eyeing a career as an orthopaedic surgeon and being successful at both proves playing sports can instill a drive in a person to reach for the stars.
“There's is certainly a lot of distraction in academics and college,” said Dr. Boniello, who wrestled as an undergraduate at Washington and Lee. “I think choosing to have wrestled or play any sport in college is a fundamental change and positive drive in people's lives.”
Many orthopedic surgeons were drawn to the practice because, at an earlier time in their athletic life, he or she was injured. And while being treated they became interested in a life in orthopaedic medicine.
Dr. Boniello admitted he was smitten while being treated after suffering an injury while wrestling in college.
“Oh yeah, absolutely,” Dr. Boniello said. “I grew up in a construction family; my dad had a construction company. That’s what I did all my summers…nights and weekends. So I didn’t have anybody in my family that had been in medicine before. So my first exposure to anything medicine-related was when I had a meniscal tear from wrestling. “
Dr. Boniello said he needed surgery to repair his knee. It was during his sophomore year at Washington and Lee. He was 19 years old.
Dr. Boniello said Anthony V Maddalo, MD, the surgeon who performed the operation, saw he was very interested with everything he was doing to treat him.
Athletics was a significant part of Boniello's life from an early age.
Dr. Boniello said he was attending Somers Senior High School in Lincolndale, New York, when he broke his arm in a wrestling match. It was placed in a cast. No surgery was needed.
He said the injury went undetected for weeks before soreness prompted him to get it checked out.
“I wrestled for weeks with a broken arm!” Dr. Boniello recalled with a laugh.
After his father Anthony coached him in youth wrestling and soccer, Boniello wrestled at Somers for four years, starting out in the 119-pound class, then 135 pounds then, as a senior wrestler as a 157 pounder. He stopped playing soccer (goalie) after his sophomore season to focus on wrestling.
At Washington and Lee, Boniello continued to excel as a grappler. He wrestled all four years for the Generals as a 165-pounder, excelling his junior and season seasons compiling an overall record of 39-15 (according to Washington and Lee's Athletic Department).
Boniell's athletics and interest in medicine continued to draw him to orthopaedics.
“[Dr. Maddalo] saw how interested I was in what he was doing in terms of the sports side of it and the intervention they were providing.”
Dr. Boniello said his surgeon invited him back to observe a procedure on a different patient.
“He let me come in and observe him in the operating room,” Dr. Boniello said. “He was actually doing some sort of knee replacement surgery. I was absolutely hooked at that point.”
BONIELLO CONTINUED WITH HIS CLASSES AT WASHINGTON AND LEE, BUT COULD FEEL MEDICAL SCHOOL CALLING TO HIM.
According to Dr. Boniello, there seems to be a trend with students these days who are leaning towards a career in medicine to major in courses that are not strictly defined at Pre-Med.
He did not take a traditional path to becoming a surgeon.
Dr. Boniello said he earned his bachelor’s degree in Physics and Engineering.
“Essentially it was a mechanical engineering degree from Washington & Lee University,” Dr. Boniello said. “I did a lot of my research while I was there in polymers sciences which ended up coming back because a lot of what we do in orthopaedics is with metallurgy and the polymers that we use for our bearings surfaces."
According to a Wikipedia definition, “polymers are chemical compounds made up of a large number of identical components linked together like chains. They are an important part of materials science. Polymers are the raw materials (the resins) used to make what are commonly called plastics and rubber.”
Dr. Boniello said although his bachelor’s degree is in mechanical engineering, many of the undergraduate courses cross over to Pre-Med.
“I took most of the classes in undergrad at Washington and Lee University. I realized after my experience with shadowing surgery with the surgeon who operated on me, that if I wanted to switch and go into medicine, I would have to take organic chemistry and I did that at Columbia. I took that after I graduated (from Washington & Lee)…two years before going to medical school.”
Dr. Boniello said he went to Columbia University for two years after graduating from Washington & Lee and before entering medical school.
Dr. Boniello said he thought something was missing as he was going to job interviews as his time at Washington & Lee was winding down.
What was missing meant enough to him to take a longer path to where he wanted to go.
So, he went to Columbia for those two years so he could move further towards medical school.
"Yeah, it was something in my mind that I always gravitated towards,” Dr.Boniello said. “The engineering type deals I was looking at then, I realized when I was interviewing my senior year, that it lacked human interaction, dealing with people. I realized that talking to the people in the positions for the jobs I was interviewing for, there was something that was frequently coming up that was missing in their careers and their lives. Thinking back with my experience in shadowing, I thought that orthopaedics was a good way to tie in my engineering background, my desire to work with athletes, my desire to really help people get back to the activities they like to do.”
Like so many who have chosen orthopaedics, Dr. Boniello gets a lot of satisfaction from getting mail delivery people back delivering mail, helping a baseball pitcher in high school get back to pitching, or a tennis instructor getting back to teaching tennis.
“One hundred percent,” He said. “If you look at the success rates for surgeons across the board, hip and knee replacements are some of the most successful in terms of getting people back to their previous normal activities. In terms of patient satisfaction, in making quality improvements in patients' every day lives.”
DR. BONIELLO TALKS PROS AND CONS OF BEING A PRE-MED
Since Dr. Boniello wasn’t technically a Pre-Med student at Washington & Lee , he was not subjected to the same schedule a Pre-Med student would be required to adhere to. He spent two years at Columbia getting up to speed.
Did it help his sports activities Not being a Pre-Med as an undergraduate? “
Yes and no,” Dr. Boniello said. “Just being a Pre-Med, it’s surprisingly not too many courses you need to take. There’s organic chemistry, there’s chemistry…some places require statistics. Most people, particularly today, are beginning to steer away from majoring in pre medicine. They are actually doing a lot more majoring in the humanities and similar courses.”
Boniello said he thinks it helps to be more rounded to take courses outside of Pre-Med. But the demands of your time are still the same.
“Something that’s actually a leg up for you…when you are interviewing for med school is having more STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) courses,” Dr. Boniello said. “A lot of people still tend to stay away from these courses because of the amount of time that goes into it. Having an engineering major and wrestling, it was definitely juggling a lot.”
WHY HIPS AND KNEES AS A SPECIALTY?
What drove Dr. Boniello to specifically want to get into hip and knee replacement surgery?
“It was the first surgery I ever observed,” Dr. Boniello said. “Which was very fortuitous. I was driven to orthopaedics just in general because of the relationship in seeing it as the patient and knowing just how much [an injury] took me from being able to compete and doing what I love most to getting back there relatively quickly. That's what really drew me to orthopaedics in general.”
“What drew me to hip and knee replacements was...I really appreciate the metallurgy, the dynamics of it, the interactions between different bearing surfaces and the science behind ingress surfaces and how your bone interacts with certain materials particularly metal and plastic.
Applying all those things with my experience in athletics, with my experience in engineering and my experience with medicine, it's proved to be a very fulfilling fit.”
HOW HAS MEDICINE CHANGED THE WAY DR. BONIELLO WATCHES SPORTS?
Dr. Boniello was asked if becoming an orthopaedic surgeon has changed the way he watches sports. Is it the same way now as he did when he was in high school and eventually as a college aged student-athlete?
If he sees how Tiger Woods, who broke his tibia and fibula (amongst other injuries to the leg) in a February 23 car crash or UFC fighter Conor McGregor's fight (in june 2020) when he shattered his left leg during the Dustin Poirier UFC 264 fight, can he tell just from watching how bad the injury is?
“Oh yeah,” Dr. Boniello said. “Reading stories like Tiger Woods injuries or watching Conor McGregor' fight, seeing in real time the body bending in ways that it shouldn't, bones bending in ways I recognize is a pretty serious injury. I know the uphill battle these people have to do what they do professionally and what they love to do. It definitely makes me watch and digest completely different because I think a lot of times in movies and TV shows there are very unrealistic adaptations of what these injuries are...you go to the hospital, you get fixed up and you're back on the field.
“Dealing with some of these injuries, particularly in certain areas, like shoulders, your hips, your knees, these can be months of rehab. It goes to show when you have high-level athletes that come back, it's just incredible, inspiring.”
Dr. Boniello was asked how can orthopaedics improve? He went back in time to make his point.
“If you look at the history of medicine and orthopaedics specifically, go back in history and you see the first joint replacement was done in the late 1800s with ivory. This was done before modern anesthesia, before antibiotics...you can imagine how desperate these patients were facing such high risks and glum outlooks of having these surgeries done."
Dr. Boniello continued his history lesson with us.
"Particularly in the mid century 1900s the orthopaedics advanced with the technology, the materials, the surgical techniques, now robots...it's made this very, very reproducibly positive outcome for the patients.
"But in doing so, it's almost becoming a challenge. Because what you have now is the baby-boomer generation, probably more than any generation before, are living more active, more energetic, more demanding lifestyles later in their lives.
"It's almost a mentality of refusing to get old,” Dr. Boniello continued. “In a lot of ways their muscles, their minds, their balance, their agility of the life they are leading...they're continuing those active lifestyles playing golf, playing tennis, doing whatever they live to do. But unfortunately our bodies wear down. Like any machine. So have really arthritic hips, really arthritic knees slowing these people down who want to continue to do those things.”
Dr. Boniello says the demand for joint replacement is getting more intense as the technology improves.
"We have these highly active patients wanting a reproducible positive outcome," He said. "It's something orthopaedics has stepped up and met that challenge in terms of different ingroff surfaces, in terms of the bearing surfaces, in terms of how they process the plastics so it doesn't wear down nearly as much as it used to 15 years ago.
"In some ways it's become so reproducible that it's becoming an option for younger patients. That's going to be the next challenge...how to make these implants last the entire lifetime of young, active people.
“In a lot of ways there's been a lot of advancement in that field (knee and hip implants). But I think that's certainly an area we're going to continue to see evolve.” *
Follow Al Thompson on Twitter @thompsoniii