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Meet the doctors who help get Boston’s sports stars back in action after injuries

Front row, left to right, are BC head team physician Robert Nascimento, Red Sox and Patriots team physician Kelly McInnis, and Revolution medical director Scott Martin. In the back is Augustus Mazzocca, chief of the MGB Sports Medicine Service.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

As an expert hand surgeon who works with the Bruins, Red Sox, and Patriots, Dr. Matthew Leibman was one of the first to learn that Red Sox pitcher Chris Sale had broken a finger in the first inning of a July 17 game against the Yankees in New York.

Leibman wasn’t watching the game, but his phone blew up with calls, texts, and social media pings the minute it happened. The next day, he operated on Sale’s left pinkie.

On Aug. 8, Sale again was treated by Leibman at the Newton-Wellesley Outpatient Surgery Center, this time to repair a broken right wrist suffered in a bicycle accident that ruled him out for the season.

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Being on call for urgent sports-injury care is nothing new for Leibman, who has photos with Super Bowl trophies and Tom Brady, and even owns a few championship rings from his years of work with Boston’s professional teams.

In 2018, Leibman took a phone call over lunch that sent him straight to the hospital to operate on Brady four days before the AFC Championship game. In 2019, he operated on Bruin Sean Kuraly, who fractured his right hand in late March but was able to return in time for the team’s run to the Stanley Cup Final.

The Bruins’ David Pastrnak and Kevan Miller and former Red Sox catcher Christian Vázquez have all paid visits to the New York University School of Medicine graduate, who says working weekends and nights is just part of the gig.

“I’ll always make sure I have my phone on me,” Leibman said. “It’s just about being available. All of us have to be available all the time.”

Dr. Matthew Leibman has treated many Bruins, and he got a treat when he was allowed to hold the Stanley Cup after the Bruins won it in 2011.Courtesy of MGB

Leibman is part of a team of more than 50 doctors at Mass General Brigham Sports Medicine. Along with caring for four of Boston’s professional sports teams, the MGB group works with Boston College, the University of Massachusetts, the University of New Hampshire, and high school athletic programs.

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The buzz of Leibman’s phone after an injury is an example of the team approach MGB takes toward sports medicine.

“Things happen so fast with professional injuries,” said Dr. Peter Asnis, medical director of professional sports for MGB and team physician for the Bruins and Red Sox who has operated on ex-Bruins Torey Krug and Tuukka Rask, and former Red Sox players Mookie Betts and Craig Kimbrel, according to team news releases.

“People want answers so quickly that we can’t know the answers to everything, but when we have this team … you can get answers to things almost immediately using technology,” he said.

The MGB sports medicine team includes team physicians and specialists. The role of a team physician is to provide medical care for the athletes, coaches, front office staff, and extended families of each team member. These needs are often communicated through constant contact with each team’s head trainer.

In some instances, particularly with baseball and soccer, team physicians are responsible for the home and visiting athletes, said Dr. Scott Martin, medical director of the New England Revolution.

In addition to the athletic teams, the doctors work cohesively on a team of their own.

“We make sure that the people on our team are just as passionate and enthusiastic of what we’re doing and they’re immediately available,” said Martin. “If they’re not on the sideline, I can just pick up the phone and they know to answer.”

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Watching a game as a team physician is an experience more comparable to that of a referee than a fan, said Dr. Mark Price.

“One of the things that I try to instill in our medical staff when they’re there on the sidelines is that if you’re doing it right, you probably miss all of the really good stuff because you should be focused at where the injury is most likely to occur, which is probably about a second and a half or two seconds behind what’s actually happening,” said Price, head team physician and medical director for the Patriots and team physician for the Red Sox.

“We’re there to do a job, not to make sure that we see all the glory or things like that. That’s what the NFL package is for, so you can watch it the next day.”

Dr. Mark Price (left) and Dr. Peter Asnis are members of the Mass General Brigham Sports Medicine team.Courtesy of MGB

Each sport is prone to its own type of injuries. Hockey and football bring many acute traumatic injuries from high-speed collisions that require immediate care.

Baseball athletes are prone to overuse injuries. Their throwing shoulders and elbows are “a completely different animal that we don’t really see in other disciplines of sports medicine,” Asnis said.

“We try to give them the best edge possible by looking at the injuries that occur the most in each sport,” said Dr. Kelly McInnis, a team physician for the Red Sox and Patriots.

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McInnis played soccer at Boston College and said she, like many of the doctors, pursued a career in sports medicine from inspiration sparked in her own athletic career.

“Our trainers work very hard to look at the science and all the studies that have been done and try to find the best program to prevent injury and stay ahead of it,” she said.

There’s a gap in research when it comes to the elite female athlete, McInnis said, and MGB is at the forefront of researching the ways female athletes are similar to and different from males.

When it comes to the recovery process, the athletes themselves, plus coaches, families, and trainers all play a part in the timeline. Agents, Asnis said, can have a strong voice in the recovery timeline as well.

“Ultimately, you’re still dealing with basic biology and you can’t escape that,” said Price. “Now, that being said, one of the benefits that the pros have that the rest of us don’t is they have great therapists. Their job, if you will, is to get better.”

Once the recovery process is complete, watching that athlete get back on the field is one of the greatest perks for the MGB team.

“Being a part of a health-care team that helps somebody get back to what they love to do and get to a level where they want to go is truly amazing,” said Dr. Robert Nascimento.

As the head team physician and medical director at BC, Nascimento works with many athletes who aspire to compete professionally one day.

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“They look at you and they almost give you an internal thank you,” he said. “There’s not a better feeling in life, to be honest with you, [than] to help somebody attain their goals like that.”

Sometimes it’s watching the rookie whose future was once at risk from injury succeed after a successful treatment plan. Other times it could be watching the athlete who had a torn ACL run down the field at 22 miles per hour, the player with a shoulder injury snatch an interception, or the pitcher with a wrist problem throw a no-hitter.

“Those are our medical Super Bowls,” Price said.


Jayna Bardahl was a Globe intern in 2022. Follow her on Twitter @Jaynabardahl.