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In Her Hands: Dr. Leigh Ann Curl Has Become A Trusted Member Of The Ravens

October 16, 2017
When you ask Dr. Leigh Ann Curl about her most memorable moments as the head orthopedic surgeon with the Baltimore Ravens, she doesn't talk about Dennis Pitta's hips or Marshal Yanda's knees or Joe Flacco's back.

"I remember the excitement of the first NFL season," Curl said, recalling 1999, when she was added to the Ravens' staff by their then-head orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Claude T. Moorman. "Certainly, I had self-doubts. I was young and didn't have much experience. I remember the two Super Bowl years [2000 and 2012 seasons]. It is what they play the games for. Whatever minute role you had in it, you certainly appreciate as a team physician what it takes to get there. So many never get there."

During the course of a football season, Curl, 53, gets to know everyone -- players, families, agents and coaches. And she gets to see how hard they work, how much the game means to them. 

"She'd be with us two, three days a week, plus on road trips and in her office, all of that every day for three or four months," said Mike Flynn, who spent 10 years with the Ravens and was the center for the 2000 Super Bowl champions. "It becomes a very personal experience.

"I was there when she first came. Of course it was different. She was a woman, and all my life experience had been male doctors. But she could relate because she was an athlete [in college]. And once a player gets in her office, they only want two answers: 'Doc, can I play?' And, 'Doc, what is the recovery period?' Then you have to have the trust in her that she knows what she's doing."

When sitting down with Curl -- before the first question is even asked -- she said: "I hope this story isn't going to be about me being the first female orthopedic in the NFL. We should be beyond that now."

Paving The Way

It has been 18 years since Moorman and Ravens team doctor Andy Tucker found themselves short-handed and in need of help.

Moorman had already recruited Curl once from Johns Hopkins, where she was an assistant professor, to help build the University of Maryland, College Park medical program. She was the head of the Terps' sports medicine program when he tapped her again for the Ravens. She became the team's head orthopedic surgeon in 2000, when Moorman left to direct the sports medicine program at Duke.

"I'm not political," Moorman said. "Andy Tucker and I just needed help, and I knew Leigh Ann very well. It was nothing to do with her being a woman. She was just the best person I knew of. Today, we're working to make our coverage teams more representative of the teams we cover for the comfort level of under-represented minority groups. But back then, I just needed help."

But without the history, there might not be the present.

Without Leigh Ann Curl -- who made sure to use her full name, so everyone would know she was a woman -- Dr. Valerie Cothran, a University of Maryland, Baltimore assistant professor, might not be the head team physician for all of College Park's athletic programs, following Curl's footsteps.

"Absolutely, she is a role model," Cothran said. "When I was a kid watching football games I saw her on the sidelines. It was rare to see a woman, not just in the NFL, but even in college athletics. That was 20 years ago, but when I see her on the sidelines, even to this day, I'm very inspired by it. People are still surprised by it."

Without Curl, Dr. Robin West might not have had the opportunity to work as an assistant orthopedic surgeon for the Pittsburgh Steelers for 11 years, and then last year become the Washington Redskins' director of sports medicine (she holds the same title for the Washington Nationals in Major League Baseball).

"I'm sure others -- team owners, general managers -- were watching her back then," Flynn said. "She broke barriers in a very masculine sport. She faced coaches, locker room and training room situations, language. If they didn't watch her then, certainly, they're watching now and seeing she's doing a great job."

Nearly two decades later, there are still fewer than 10 women serving as team physicians in both the NFL and MLB combined. And Curl is still only one of two (West being the other) head orthopedic surgeons in the NFL. West is also the only head female physician in MLB, though Curl also assists with the Orioles.

How She Got Here

Curl didn't plan on becoming a doctor -- not even when she was a two-time GTE Academic All-American at the University of Connecticut, where she also excelled as a power forward for the women's basketball team, setting scoring and rebounding records for the Huskies.

Curl was always smart, but she never took her innate intelligence for granted.

"She was intense and someone who studied all the time," said her Huskies teammate and longtime friend Peggy (Walsh) Myers. "She wanted to get straight A's. I think she got one B-plus. I would have been happy to have one B-plus."

On a four-year basketball scholarship, Curl became a University Scholar, what Dr. Ted Taigen, her former professor, said is "the highest honor you could get."

Part of her daily routine was basketball, which sounds pretty exciting given the current reputation of the UConn women. But Curl's basketball career came to an end the year before current women's coach Geno Auriemma arrived and turned the Huskies into a powerhouse.

While Curl was there, no one thought of 111 straight wins, which the Huskies achieved from 2014-2017.

"Nobody came to their games," Taigen said. "I'd go sometimes, and it would literally be me, a couple of janitors leaning on brooms, and some parents and friends."

Taigen recalled the team, which was 36-74 during Curl's time (1981-1985), as consistently bad. But he said Curl was consistently good, helping the team transition from NAIA to NCAA governance and move from Division II to Division I.

"The basketball team, we struggled at the time," Curl said. "A lot of things were going on, but I stuck it out. I was one of four freshmen and the only one who kept the commitment."

She is remembered as a careful, thoughtful player by Taigen and Myers. She was 6-foot-2 and could hit a mid-range jump shot.

Thirty-two years later, her rebounding numbers (834) and points (1,388) still rank 11th and 29th, respectively, at UConn.

She is also a member of the CoSIDA Academic All-America Hall of Fame, invited in 1998 because of her "sparkling career as an undergraduate," both academically and athletically.

She graduated summa cum laude and as class valedictorian in a class of 4,000, and was a two-time Women's Basketball Division I Academic All-American.

"People talk about her being a role model for women because of her job with the Ravens," Myers said. "But for me, the biggest thing she demonstrates is that you can be a very good college athlete and still be a great student, as well."

It wasn't easy, Curl admits.

"At Connecticut, I went to class, studied, played basketball and spent a lot of my other free time with Professor Taigen, who worked with evolutionary biology, lower vertebrae and exercise physiology -- basically in toads," Curl said with a laugh.

"I had an interest in exercise physiology in people, but it's hard to do human research in college."

Basically, she was looking for the reasons some people could run faster and longer than others.

"To find the answers, she had to get inside the toad, release a dye into its cardiovascular system and measure it optically in veins, arteries," Taigen said.
"It's very careful work in a very small space in very tiny toads. … She had a very deft touch and very long, delicate fingers to do very delicate procedures, and she's still doing that."

As Taigen looks back, he sees how it was a "fabulous" training environment for med school and the professional work she has gone on to do.

"She'd go to classes all day, go to basketball practice, study and then [walk a quarter-mile across campus] to our lab," Taigen said. "She was always a perfectionist, dotting the 'i' and crossing the 't'."

Curl would finish at the lab around midnight, walk back to her dorm and be up by 6 a.m. to do it all over again.

And yet, Curl said, she never really thought she was going to be a doctor.

"Some of my teammates were already calling me Dr. Curl because of all the things I was studying. But I wasn't ever part of a formal pre-med program," she said. "Dr. Taigen suggested Johns Hopkins, and I didn't really know what that meant."

It meant she would become the first female orthopedic resident at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

"Certainly, orthopedics wasn't anything most women did," she said. "You did not see women at recruiting interviews or during my residency. And during my fellowship, I didn't see any females, either. Even at Hopkins, there were 32 surgical interns, and I was the only female. I was on an island as far as gender perspective. But it's not that way anymore."

That’s not the only thing that’s changed. Curl grew up one of six children in Pittsburgh, rooting for, yes, the Steelers. She also thought she might be an astronaut or the first female player in Major League Baseball.

"The trips to Pittsburgh, they're fun with my family," Curl said. "But … I am not a Steelers fan in any capacity anymore. It's not in my blood anymore -- though it is still in my family's, and that's what the games are about, the rivalries, the loyalties. But you watch these guys work so hard. The season is a grind -- though certainly easier when you are winning and have success. The failure can be palpable."

'A Great Doc'

By the time guard Marshal Yanda showed up in 2007, Curl was a familiar part of the scene.

"On a team, everyone has a role," Yanda said. "She's behind us on Sunday. … To be honest, I've never taken the female aspect into consideration. I've never really thought about her as anything other than a great doc.

"Unfortunately, I've seen her a lot. I tore my meniscus and had surgery on my left knee in 2014, but two weeks later, she had me back playing."

Unfortunately, when the Pro Bowl player went down in the second game this season, she couldn't put him back together so quickly. Yanda is out for the season with a fractured left ankle.

But his view of Curl hasn't changed, and it's shared by Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome and head coach John Harbaugh.

"The job of team doctor is so important, and Leigh Ann fills that role for the Ravens at a very high level," Newsome said. "First, you have to be among the best in your field, and Dr. Curl is that. She's highly respected -- athletes from around the country seek her expertise. And she has a very hard job. Earning and keeping a player's trust is difficult, harder than it used to be. Agents, the union [NFLPA], others, they are telling players to get second and third opinions. But, she does earn that trust."

Newsome points to her college athletic experience and her history of getting players back on the field as reasons players trust her. Harbaugh points to her pinpoint diagnostic skills.

"I am amazed at how her first diagnosis, especially during games, is [found to be] spot on after they do the more sophisticated tests like MRI and X-ray," he said. "She's confident in her expertise and she needs to be. … We trust her judgment and knowledge, and we feel lucky to have her."

After every injury, she tells the players the short-term implications and the long-term risks. And she deals with their emotions.

"From high school to pros, delivering bad news is never fun, and I've never gotten good at it," Curl said of the worst part of her job. "I always have this pit in my stomach. You say, 'You tore your ACL.' When you say that, they know what it means. Season over. Surgery. A year to get back."

Taigen said Curl's own athletic experience helps her relate to the athletes she treats.

"She knows about all the unique forces at work," Taigen said. "She was an athlete in the trenches, had horrible shin splints and could hardly run. … I think all of that is reflected in the care she gives the athletes and the empathy she feels."

Myers, her former teammate, still seeks Curl's advice. 

"She is so good at what she does," Myers said. "I work in the women's athletic department at Connecticut, and when I tore my ACL and MCL two years ago, she was the first person I called, even though [we] have great doctors. I wanted her opinion."  

What The Future Holds

In addition to her Ravens duties, Curl does seven-to-10 days of Orioles training camp, three or four home games a month and player evaluations.

Plus, she has a thriving clinical practice where she sees patients three days and operates two days a week. Employed by MedStar Orthopedics, she is transitioning to more administrative work; two years ago she became the chair of orthopedics for MedStar Harbor Hospital.

"The players are the most visible of my patients," Curl said. "But the majority of my patients are people in the community. … I can have a powerful impact, getting them back to their lives. Sports are exciting and fun, but I enjoy my routine patients. They're what motivate me."

All of it together takes tremendous stamina, Curl said.

"I can clearly function, but that tolerance is not as robust as you get older," she said. "Twenty years ago, I could get home from a road trip at 3 a.m. and operate at 7 a.m. Now, not at all."

Curl has avoided the trap of an all-consuming career, however. She has a family that includes two children. She carves out time to spend with them fishing on the pier behind her home most nights and has made sure to have a residence big enough to host her large Pittsburgh family.

"I started my family late," she said. "Here I am at 53, you start spending more time with personal reflections. You think about what you've accomplished, what you're committed to and what's important going forward. There are only so many hours in a day. People ask, 'How much longer are you going to [work for] the Ravens?' I am not thinking about quitting, but it won't be another 20 years."

Issue 238: October 2017