During the year she spent training in the long jump for the 2016 Olympics, Yetsa Tuakli-Wosornu, MD, visited the Bahamas for an international competition. After competing, she was sitting in the grandstand when she heard someone calling for help across the field. A voice came over the speaker asking, “Is there a doctor in the house?”
At the time, Dr. Tuakli-Wosornu was a relatively new physiatrist, an MD with additional training in physical medicine and rehabilitation (PM&R), specializing in nonsurgical sports and spine care. She’d also had serious sports injuries of her own and was intimately familiar with the sinking feeling athletes get when they are hurt. Wearing her “freshly sanded” uniform, since she’d just jumped, she went over to see how she could help. “It was a spine case—one of the athletes seemed to have a disk herniation. I examined her and helped her think through what to do while we waited for help,” she recalls.
Dr. Tuakli-Wosornu believes that her training, competitions and injuries make her uniquely qualified to treat patients at Yale Medicine’s Center for Musculoskeletal Care. We sat down with her recently to talk about her work.
What exactly is an 'interventional spine physiatrist'?
A physiatrist is a doctor who believes in the power of movement to heal. I specialize in sports and spine, and work with Yale Medicine orthopedic surgeons. I refer patients to them when needed, but as a physiatrist, I take more of a holistic approach to care. I treat the axial skeleton—the neck, the mid-back, the low back and the sacrum—to help with pain control and mobility. And I might provide a treatment like a spine injection, often in combination with physical therapy and any medication that might be useful.
I do my best to maximize patients’ physical function and to optimize all of the nonsurgical approaches to keep them out of the operating room for as long as possible.
How did you find your way into this specialized field?
I was working as a personal trainer while earning my master’s in public health, before residency. One of my clients was an adult with cerebral palsy. Halfway through his sessions—about six weeks in—he said, “I know you went to medical school. I think you should be a physiatrist.” He explained what it was, and, of course, I was sold.
And you were competing at that point?
Yes. I competed on the track and field team as an undergraduate at Yale. I did well for an Ivy League athlete, but not as a national athlete. When I went to medical school, I wanted to stay close to what I was wired to do. A good friend of mine had just joined a community track club, so I joined as a hobby. I started to do really well, I think, because there were no expectations. I kept competing throughout my MPH program and residency, and eventually went on to represent Ghana’s National Track and Field Team in the women’s long jump (I grew up in London and Boston, but my parents are originally from Ghana).
Are most of your patients athletes?
I do treat a lot of athletes—I’ve got a few college-age athletes who were injured last year and want to get back into training. But, I see a lot of non-athletes, too. My patients run the gamut from age 16 up to 94. My average patient is probably around age 50.
What is the most common condition you treat?
Overall, about 84 percent of the population has back pain, from run-of-the-mill wear and tear to post-surgery to trauma. The majority of my patients are middle-aged people who work a variety of jobs, from city bus drivers to Yale professors to CEOs of major corporations. They want to feel better so they can work at a desk, pick their kids up from school and socialize with their friends on the weekend without pain.
What can you do for them?
Patients are surprised to learn about the number of nonsurgical approaches available to them. I can provide different kinds of physical therapy or physical movement therapies, bracing and orthotics, and medications, including anti-inflammatories. We also offer injections, such as a combination of cortisone and Novocaine, that can provide relief.
Yale Medicine orthopedic surgeons and physiatrists also provide regenerative orthobiologic therapies, involving stem cells and platelet-rich plasma, that show great promise.
You’ve probably had some of these treatments yourself.
I think the question is what injuries have I not had! I’ve had jumper’s knee, or patellar tendinitis, when the tendon at the front of the knee is inflamed, and Achilles tendinosis, which for me was a more serious problem that required surgery. I’ve had a bone fracture in my femur, a rotator cuff tear on my left shoulder and recurrent back pain due to disk disease. Most recently, I tore my ACL and had it surgically repaired.
Do you feel you have a unique advantage when you sit down with a patient?
Absolutely. I can relate to every patient who walks in the room. I know exactly how they feel when they are down and how that affects their identity. I know it’s critical to have compassion and to walk them through this disorienting period.
When I was recovering from my ACL reconstruction, I would hobble into the exam room with a big brace on my leg. Patients would say, “It’s inspiring to see that you can be physically impaired in some way and still push on.”
That sort of leads to your work with the International Paralympic Committee (IPC).
The IPC medical committee is made up of doctors from all over the world who oversee the medical care of around 4,000 Paralympic athletes. In my role as the IPC welfare officer, I’ve worked with athletes who have impairments, ranging from short stature to cerebral palsy. It has opened my eyes to the universality of impairment.
Will you do the long jump again?
We’ll see. I tell my patients to never close the door. It could be a sport. It could be gardening. These activities are creative outlets and physical expressions of yourself. Even if the level of your performance changes, we want to get you to a place where you are performing as well as you can.
To schedule an appointment with a Yale Medicine physiatrist, contact the Center for Musculoskeletal Care at 866-470-9253.