For star athletes, this doctor a cut above the rest

Surgeon James Andrews, center, operates at the Andrews Institute for Orthopedics and Sports Medicine. Andrews has treated several famous athletes at his clinic in Gulf Breeze, Fla.

? He’s almost as famous as the superstars he operates on.

When the likes of Roger Clemens, Bo Jackson, Michael Jordan, Jack Nicklaus, Dwyane Wade and Drew Brees needed surgery to repair worn out elbows, shoulders and knees, they went to Dr. James Andrews in Birmingham, Ala.

Andrews recently opened the Andrews Institute for Orthopedics and Sports Medicine in Gulf Breeze to be near the gleaming white sands and turquoise waves of Pensacola Beach.

But the 66-year-old, who had a heart attack last year, isn’t interested in retiring to the beach – his passion for the operating room remains.

He’s perhaps best known as the surgeon Major League Baseball turns to when pitchers blow out their ulnar collateral ligament, which stabilizes the elbow.

When the Cleveland Indians’ Paul Byrd needed his elbow repaired in 2003, Andrews was the only surgeon he considered for the job.

“He’s kind of like the E.F. Hutton of doctors. When he speaks, people listen,” said Byrd.

Andrews is considered the master of Tommy John surgery, the procedure named for the pitcher Dr. Frank Jobe first performed it on in 1974. In the surgery, a tendon from the forearm or leg is used to replace the damaged ligament.

“Jim is a pioneer in the field. He’s a leader. He has a well-deserved and tremendous reputation,” said Dr. David Altcheck, medical director for the New York Mets and the attending orthopedic surgeon at New York’s Hospital for Special Surgery.

Altcheck said what separates Andrews from other doctors is an ability to connect with his patients.

“There are a lot of excellent surgeons in the world, but only a few who understand what it means for an athlete to get back into their sport,” he said.

That could be because Andrews was an athlete himself, pole vaulting at LSU and later sailing in the America’s Cup.

Andrews performs surgery at his Florida center once a week – “Circus Fridays” his staff calls them – because of the chaos of his multiple operating rooms and the constant communication with the athletes and their families, teams and agents.

Andrews manages his circus with the finesse of a veteran ringmaster.

On one recent Friday, he was running between patients in eight operating rooms. Three held New York Yankees minor-league pitchers awaiting arm surgery. As he zipped back and forth, he stopped for a few minutes to field a phone call from the Philadelphia Eagles.

“Tell management this was a season-ending situation,” he said, leaving one of the operating rooms and entering the observation lounge – a hallway-like area outside four operating rooms. Viewing windows allow an athlete’s entourage to watch Andrews do what he does best – drill holes through the joints and sew the torn ligaments of athletes who often make millions of dollars on the playing field.

“The kind of loyalty he has bred among those coaches is unbelievable. It’s just the type of mentality a lot of those guys have out there. They only trust Andrews to fix their athletes,” said Chad Gilliland, an administrator at Andrew’s Florida institute.