Where do Dr. David Young’s loyalties lie? Without missing a beat, the Sri Lankan cricket team’s honorary surgeon says, “always with individual athletes.” Dr. Young is a familiar face here – he’s been travelling to the island, sometimes several times a year, for 17 years now. An orthopaedic surgeon, his patients have included the likes of Aravinda de Silva, Kumar Sangakkara, Marvan Atapattu, Chaminda Vaas, Muttiah Muralitharan, Sanath Jayasuriya and Lasith Malinga. Still, Dr. Young sees cricketers from the Australian national team at his private practice in Melbourne as well. “For me, it’s always about the players, and if the team does well, good luck to them but sport is about having everyone do well,” he says. “If one country just wins all the time it’s no fun – I like rooting for the underdog.”
Doctor and friend: Taking a look at pacie Lasith Malinga’s x-ray
Dr. Young seems to genuinely enjoy the challenge of working with sportsmen and women and his interest extends far beyond cricket. In the course of a quick interview he mentions a Russian tennis player and rugby players from two teams, but he’s also working with players from different football teams and is the consultant orthopaedic surgeon to the Australian and Victorian Institutes of Sports and Netball Australia. “It’s much harder treating a sporting injury than treating an everyday injury,” says Dr. Young, explaining that he cannot send an athlete to the field with a limp. Instead, it’s about attending to all aspects of rehabilitation so that the individual can return to peak performance – not just fixing, say a broken bone, but ensuring the muscles recover and that endurance returns.
He’s keenly aware of what hangs in the balance for his patients. “The word here is ‘professional’,” he emphasises. He holds up Sri Lankan cricketer Kumar Sangakara as a classic example. Abandoning his law degree halfway to play cricket full time was a massive commitment for the player – one that a very serious injury could jeopardize. “It’s a massive gamble for him to pick cricket over law, that’s why I feel such responsibility to the players to make sure you fix their injuries, so that they can keep playing the game because that’s their livelihood,” says Dr. Young. “I love the challenge of helping that individual fulfil their potential.”
And a challenge it can be. You don’t have to be a professional to take pride in representing your team. Recently, Dr. Young told four players on a school rugby team that they would risk worsening their injuries if they played the next game – all four played anyway. One of them – the captain – had to be carried off the field. “It is the most frustrating thing about the job,” says Dr. Young who has seen it happen more than once. “It’s frustrating because I know they’re making their injuries worse so when they do come to have them treated, they’re in a worse state. But that’s the passion. Their drive to play even when injured is colossal and I have to respect that. I pick up the pieces. My job becomes a bit harder, so be it.”
With many cricketers for patients, Dr. Young knows that the toll the game takes on a body can be staggering. Any one of a dozen points could buckle under the strain. “One of the problems with the Sri Lankan genetics is ligament laxity. So that means unstable joints – knee, ankle, shoulder, wrist.” Some players have the most extraordinary injuries – one bowler that Dr. Young has high hopes for has been playing with a broken bone in his foot. Dr. Young spotted it on an x-ray that was sent to him on his phone. In fact, he’s already had four calls from Galle where Sri Lanka was playing Pakistan in the first test match of the current series. “It’s now very easy to get an instant opinion around the world,” he points out.
Sharing his medical expertise with Sri Lankan doctors is something that Dr. Young feels passionately about. He remembers first being made aware of the many challenges that local surgeons faced when he came to Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the tsunami to volunteer his own very specific skill set. He saw immediately that local surgeons were faced with a real shortage of well-equipped operation theatres. In the coming years, he would help coordinate donations of equipment that amounted to around $2 million, but there was obviously much more to be done.
Along with the concerned local orthopaedic surgeons, he helped set up the Foundation Supporting a National Trauma Service in Sri Lanka of which he is currently President. Former Governor of Victoria, Prof. David de Kretser is the organisation’s patron, while Dr. Ranjith Hettiarachi and Dr. Abbas Akbarally are vice-patrons. Sri Lankan cricketer Mutthiah Muralitharan, head coach of Pakistan cricket team Dav Whatmore and Australian cricketer Shane Watson are ambassadors. Together with their team, they raised enough funds to improve the facilities at the Karapitiya teaching hospital in Galle district and now they’re hoping to do the same in Batticaloa with the teaching hospital there.
Young: Rooting for the underdog
“It’s basically about putting a national trauma service into place,” says Dr. Young, explaining that “it’s an initiative the Orthopaedic Association here in Sri Lanka has been working on for three years.” He knows exactly what he can contribute: “I’m simply coming in as a coordinator of volunteers to raise money but also to bring experts from around the world to lecture about running emergency services. What I’m on about now is building capacity.” For Dr. Young, it’s also about keeping the surgeons we do have in the country.
As of 2005, there were only 21 orthopaedic surgeons, he says. Today the number has risen steeply to 78 – but just compare it to a country like Australia that has over 1,300 for a similar population and one can see the need remains. “I realised at the time of the tsunami that brain drain had to stop and the only way to do that was to empower the doctors,” he says.
While the need of the local communities is more than enough, one must also consider that the anticipated growth in tourism will require that better emergency facilities be available for visitors to the country. By continuing to work closely with the Ministry of Health, the team hopes to replicate their success at Karapitiya not only in Batticaloa but also in other teaching hospitals across the country.
While the Foundation work will continue to bring Dr. Young to Sri Lanka, he is also juggling other charitable projects in Australia, his practice as well as his research interests, which currently include creating a ceramic hip.
He’s excited about it because he says this work can actually be considered performance enhancing. He will also be keeping an eye on all his patients. “You know, I used to play cricket when I was a boy – wicket keeper and opening batsman.” He’s happy to admit the sport still has his heart and that he enjoys the company of the players. “If I had one person in the world I would have liked to have been it would have been Kumar Sangakkara,” he says.
Published in the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on July 8, 2012. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix by Athula Devapriya.