Special Dispatch from Sochi: On the Slopes with First Olympic Neurologist Jeffrey Kutcher, MD
by Olga Rukovets
For Jeffrey Kutcher, MD, the journey to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games began more than two years ago, when he was first approached by the medical director of the US Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA). The USSA was looking to update concussion management to reflect changes in the understanding of brain injury—and they wanted a neurologist on board.
Fortunately, Dr. Kutcher—director of the Michigan Neurosport Program, associate professor of neurology at the University of Michigan School of Medicine, and team physician with the Michigan Athletic Department—was just the man for that job. In addition to his impressive credentials as a sports neurologist and concussion specialist, Dr. Kutcher also knew his way around the slopes and the hockey rink.
Now, as the first full-time sports neurologist to attend the Olympics on behalf of Team USA, Dr. Kutcher is the official head neurologist for the USSA and all National Hockey League (NHL) players—regardless of their country; he is also a consultant for the entire US Olympic team in cases of concussions or brain injuries. “I see my involvement reflecting the overall evolution of the neurologist’s increasing role in sports medicine,” he says.
In an e-mail correspondence with Neurology Today, Dr. Kutcher described what life and medicine really look like in the Olympic Village.
HOW MANY PHYSICIANS DOES THE US OLYMPIC TEAM HAVE IN SOCHI?
Every specific team or sport representing the US does it a little differently and has a different set of needs. The US Olympic Committee has its own medical staff as well to provide another layer. I would imagine we have 30-35 physicians in Sochi, but that’s only a guess! In addition, we have an incredibly skilled staff of athletic trainers, physical therapists, and other clinicians. We have easily over 100 medical providers here for Team USA.
WHAT HAVE THE US OLYMPIC TEAM AND NHL ASKED YOU SPECIFICALLY TO DO?
My first responsibility is for the skiers and snowboarders, so I’m stationed in the mountain village. It’s an amazing experience to live with athletes and staff from so many countries! Essentially, every day I go from one event or training session to another, providing care on site—on course, if needed—and in our medical clinic in the village. In addition, being the only neurologist in Sochi for the US, I’m also available to care for any of our athletes, from any sport—from ice-dancing to curling—with any type of neurological problem. The NHL has also asked me to serve as a neurological consultant for any NHL player participating in the games, regardless of country.
HOW DID YOU HAVE TO PREPARE FOR COVERING THIS EVENT AS PART OF THE MEDICAL TEAM? HAVE YOU HAD ANY DEALINGS WITH MEMBERS OF THE OLYMPICS TEAM?
I’ve been dedicating time over the past two years getting to know the sports, athletes, and particular challenges that come along with the venues. Also, every December the USSA has a course for team physicians in Beaver Creek, CO where we practice our on-course emergency response. I’ve truly been amazed at how different these sports are from what I’m used to (team sports like football and hockey). I’ve also spent some time out in Park City, UT at the USSA Center of Excellence, getting to know the staff.
WHAT WOULD YOU EXPECT TO BE UNIQUE ABOUT COVERING THESE OLYMPIC GAMES? SOCHI?
So far, from a work perspective, I’ve been struck with how similar it feels to other sports I’ve covered and other venues. In the end, it’s all about caring for the athletes, so you need to focus on that. The rest of it then becomes background noise. As for Sochi and Russia, it’s been fantastic. It’s definitely a unique place with such amazing mountains so close to the sea. Every day has brought a little quirk here and there, unexpected things that amuse, but nothing too troublesome. One has to be careful not to get stuck on a gondola, however.
WHAT DOES YOUR PACKING LIST LOOK LIKE? ANY PARTICULAR TOOLS YOU EXPECT TO USE WHEN EVALUATING CONCUSSION ON THE SLOPES/ICE AT SOCHI?
All of our USSA athletes have gone through baseline testing and we can repeat those tests very simply in the clinic. Other than being on skis and carrying a radio to communicate with the medical and coaching staffs, I carry the usual neurological examination tools. Additionally, whenever any of our athletes are on course, whether in training or competition, one of us will also be carrying a (rather heavy) trauma pack.
I'VE READ THAT YOU SKI AND PLAY HOCKEY. ANY SPECIAL ADVICE OR TACTICS YOU HAVE FOR THE ATHLETES TO AVOID INJURY?
The number one piece of equipment for injury prevention is between your ears. Be aware, know your limits, and remained focused. Practice is also incredibly important, or course. Helmets should be in good condition and fit properly. After that, the biggest thing is to respond appropriately to injury. Get evaluated quickly and take your recovery seriously.
See Neurology Today's previous articles on Dr. Kutcher’s work in sports-related brain injury: http://bit.ly/1b2zUVI. Also, browse Neurology Now's collection of stories on brain injury and concussion: http://bit.ly/1g4WcCo.