Dr. Gasol? Pau's love outside basketball
LOS ANGELES -- Interesting how so many surgeons wear sneakers. The family from rural Colorado noticed that right off the bat. The day the Shattucks met Dr. David Skaggs, at Childrens Hospital on Sunset Boulevard, he had bounced in to examine their 13-year-old daughter, Isabelle, wearing pitch-black running shoes. Their first impression was he seemed athletic. Everything after that was a blur.
The doctor showed them an X-ray of their daughter's spine, a spine that resembled a spiral staircase. Because of scoliosis, one side had a 56-degree bend, the other was at 52 degrees, and he told them that, unless he fixed it, Isabelle could end up deformed and unable to take a full breath. He recommended surgery the following week.
The operation would be major. He would slice her back open, break her spine and reconstruct it with metal rods and screws. He would be using drills and power tools just centimeters from her spinal column, and one slip could mean paralysis or a punctured aorta.
It was a lot for the Shattucks to digest, but they nodded and made their peace with it. They then drove back to the Rocky Mountains, to their home near Grand Junction, Colo., and spent the days before surgery doing yoga and trying to exhale.
Then, one afternoon, the phone rang. It was the surgeon, Skaggs.
"You guys Laker fans?" he asked.
Interesting how so many 7-footers wear basketball uniforms. But when Pau Gasol was 11 years old and 5-foot-nothing, he was thinking about another line of work.
In November 1991, at his Barcelona grade school, Gasol learned that one of his idols, Earvin "Magic" Johnson, had HIV. He remembers feeling flushed and wanting to be alone. Magic, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan were all his heroes, and he was convinced he would now have to subtract one.
"I thought, 'He's going to die,'" Gasol says. "At that time, HIV AIDS equaled death. I was wandering around school, just thinking about it, just wow. There was a lot of speculation on how you can catch it. You were afraid of sipping on somebody's bottle of Coke or eating off the same plate. Things like that or saliva. Is it transmitted by blood only? As an 11-year-old, it's a lot to take. It had an impact."
At home, he went looking for answers. His mother, Marisa, was a physician, and his father, Agusti, was a nurse, and he asked them if Johnson would be alive in the 21st century. They couldn't guarantee it.
He decided, at that very moment, to fix the problem. He decided, right then, to become a doctor.
"I wanted to find the cure," Gasol says. "I wanted to be able to find the cure for major sicknesses. I wanted to find the cure for cancer. I was an 11-year-old dreaming at the time.
"When they'd ask me what I wanted to be, I'd say doctor. I wanted to be a scientist. That was my answer. I always enjoyed biology, science -- math even. The dream I had was that it would be nice to cure lives and save people's lives. I didn't know how ... but it was something I pictured."
He focused on his studies, but as the years passed, he grew to 6-feet-nothing and then 6-foot-something. The sport of basketball had always been in the equation, but now that he was pushing 7 feet, now that he towered over most everyone in Barcelona, he would have a decision to make soon.
He tried balancing both basketball and medicine at first -- and, the truth is, he wasn't the better for it. By day, he was an 18-year-old, first-year med student at the University of Barcelona; by night, he was a pivot man on the FC Barcelona club team. It might've worked if he had owned a car, but he was forced to take public transportation from school to basketball practice -- either that or hail a ride from his parents -- and that took a major toll on him.
"Taking a bus is always tough because you always have to be ducking," the 7-footer says. "But it also made me grow up in many ways because I didn't have any personal life at that time -- I was only committed to basketball and medicine. Most of my friends were hanging, and my basketball teammates were playing basketball and hanging out, and the guys at med school -- they were studying. I was doing both."
During that exhausting first year, he cut corners wherever he could. In his first semester, he had full-squad basketball practices in the morning, three medical courses in the late morning/early afternoon and then basketball drill-work in the late afternoon. The only un-stressful days were game nights. He had to get creative -- wearing basketball shorts under his dress pants -- but he passed the three classes with above-average test scores.
The problem in the second semester was that the season was in full swing, which meant more extended road trips. He was missing more classes and getting icy glares from professors, but he still managed to pass the majority of his courses. He wasn't sure what his medical specialty would be -- he had six years of school to figure it out -- but he thoroughly enjoyed the lab work and suspected he'd end up a researcher, working with "illnesses, bacteria, different viruses -- and find remedies." He still thought he could pull off med school.
But the second year wore him out. The curriculum required that he spend extended hours at the hospital or in the lab, doing group study, and basketball was in direct conflict with his schedule. And unfortunately, he wasn't a star yet on the court; he couldn't afford to come and go as he pleased. That first season with FC Barcelona, he got on the court for only a pair of games, partly because he was still raw, but mostly because he wasn't spending enough quality time in the gym. How could he? There were exams to cram for. But when he realized he'd have to miss practices or games because of school, he knew he had to give one of them up.
He requested a meeting with the dean of the medical school, Dr. Josep Antoni Bombi, and decided, in the short term, to stick with basketball. He became a dropout with the blessing of his parents, the dean and Spanish basketball officials.
"To me, it was not hard because I knew what felt right," Gasol says. "I just felt like basketball was really getting to a point that it could be a great opportunity. I was getting good at it. I was traveling with a professional team. It was really exciting stuff. I was right there, and it was happening to me. I thought if it didn't work out, I could always go back to medicine. I could always become a doctor. The dean said I could always come back."
The dean is still waiting.
By the age of 22, Gasol was the NBA Rookie of the Year for the Memphis Grizzlies -- which meant he was finally riding buses with headroom. But he was still the same kid, the same Pau Gasol who read medical journals in his spare time. He would make appearances at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis and, in the offseason, gave much of his summer to UNICEF.
He took trips to Africa, concerned for children with AIDS, and made it clear he wished he could be on the front line battling the disease. Magic Johnson, who had made it to the 21st century, was still one of his heroes, and then -- on Feb. 1, 2008 -- Gasol was stunningly traded to Johnson's team.
The trade to the Lakers -- for Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton, Aaron McKie, two No. 1 picks and the draft rights to his own brother, Marc Gasol -- was highway robbery, arguably the most lopsided NBA trade since the Warriors sent Robert Parish and the third-overall pick in 1980 (Kevin McHale) to the Celtics for the first-overall pick, Joe Barry Carroll. But Gasol wasn't planning to just help the L.A. Lakers; he intended to help the L.A. hospitals.
Surgeons, in particular, tend to be a bunch of ex-athletes. We get excited. We change in the locker room. We go into the game. We work as a team. We're a little bit nervous [before surgery]. [Gasol] clearly is one of us.” -- Dr. David Skaggs
After taking time to acclimate himself to the team -- which paid off with a title in 2008-09 -- Gasol struck up a relationship with the local Childrens Hospital on Sunset Boulevard. During the 2009-10 season, he arrived for a tour of the facility and was routed to a meeting with the hospital's top orthopedist the one in sneakers, David Skaggs.
"When Pau first came by here, I gave him the usual dog and pony show, showing him all the neat things we do," Skaggs says. "And at one point, Pau looked at me and said, 'If you're fusing a child's spine and they're 2 years old, what are the long-term pulmonary implications of that?'
"I said, 'Hold on a second. Where did you come up with that question?' The thing that blew me away was his ability to instantly focus on the big controversy in pediatric spine surgery, which took me a decade to get. He seemed to get it in five minutes. So I thought he was pretty intelligent. Almost scary intelligent."
Gasol explained about his parents' background and his single year in med school, and Skaggs immediately sensed they were kindred spirits. During his undergraduate days at Amherst College, Skaggs says he played four years of soccer and was an All-American in the 400-meter hurdles. During med school at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, he was hand-picked to join the rugby club team. He was a jock, so he and Pau had a connection on multiple levels.
"Pau is someone who could've gone either way [medicine or basketball]," Skaggs says. "And I think he looks upon being a doctor and a surgeon as the path not taken. Surgeons, in particular, tend to be a bunch of ex-athletes. We get excited. We change in the locker room. We go into the game. We work as a team. We're a little bit nervous [before surgery]. He clearly is one of us."
Skaggs took charge of Gasol's hospital tour that day, and when the two of them entered the operating room, the doctor noticed Gasol's eyes bulge. "So many people who are super successful and famous become a little bit jaded to life," Skaggs says. "But Pau still has that inner child. He was truly as excited as a child would be." The 7-footer kept scanning the room, kept asking well-thought out questions. So Skaggs decided to run something by him:
"Do you want to come and observe spine surgery?" the doctor asked.
"Really, could I?" Gasol said.
There was the small matter, first, of the 2009-10 playoffs. The Lakers went into the postseason with some nagging injuries -- namely Andrew Bynum's knee and Kobe Bryant's pinkie, leg, etc. -- but Gasol seemed recovered from a sore hamstring partly because of some doctoring from Gasol.
Early in the season, when his hamstring had originally flared up, the team had ordered an MRI. The results showed a tear. But when he later reinjured the muscle, Gasol suggested the Lakers also try a sonogram to find the depth of the fissure.
"They said here in the States, [a sonogram] is not really practiced," Gasol says. "They only do sonograms on pregnant women. But it's done back in Europe for muscular tears, to understand the length of a tear. MRIs can tell you different things, but sonograms can also add knowledge and value. Once we did that, it was a plus. I just provided a little bit of knowledge."
Some players are another coach on the floor; Gasol was another doctor. He and Skaggs corresponded during the playoffs, and in between the series with the Jazz and the Suns, the surgeon felt it might be the perfect time for Gasol to witness a spinal operation. The 7-footer was thrilled, but the night before surgery, Gasol came down with a low-grade fever. He didn't want to risk infecting anyone at the hospital, much less in the operating room, so he canceled.
He was healthy for the Western Conference finals against the Suns, of course, and a few weeks later, he and the Lakers were facing the all-or-nothing Game 7 in the NBA Finals against the Celtics. Six times in the final 4½ minutes of the deciding game, Gasol stepped to the foul line for nerve-racking free throws. And each time, Skaggs' 9-year-old son sat in front of their family TV, yelling: "Miss it."
"What?" Skaggs said to his kid.
"Reverse psychology," the boy said. "This way, he'll make 'em."
In all, Gasol drained five of those six pressurized foul shots, and also had a layup and a massive offensive rebound in the final minute and a half. When the Lakers won, 83-79, the 7-footer openly sobbed, perhaps out of pure relief.
A couple of days later, on June 19 -- when he could've been packing for Barcelona -- Gasol instead e-mailed Skaggs.
"Hey, can I still watch spine surgery?" the player wrote.
"Matter of fact, yes," the doctor responded. "I have another one coming up."
And that's when Skaggs dialed rural Colorado.
When the doctor asked Lisa Shattuck, "You guys Laker fans?" her answer was no.
When he asked her if she'd heard of Pau Gasol, she answered, "Pau who?"
She'd heard of Kobe Bryant. And when she and her husband lived in Park City, Utah, back in the '90s, she'd heard of John Stockton, Karl Malone, Michael Jordan, even Jeff Hornacek. But Pau Gasol was something of a mystery.
"Well, Pau is a former medical student, whose mother is a doctor, and he'd like very much to observe your daughter Isabelle's surgery this coming week," Skaggs told her.
Lisa talked it over with Isabelle. Neither of them minded.
"Maybe if he'd have said Roger Federer was coming, I'd have said, 'Oh Lord' -- I probably would've had a hot flash right there and then," says Lisa, a native of Kent in southeastern England. "But, no, I didn't know who he was. I knew who Kobe Bryant was. I guess I've had a very busy year."
When they hung up with Skaggs, Lisa and Isabelle looked Gasol up on the Internet. And they learned he was tall and good-looking and Spanish and philanthropic when it came to children.
"It made my daughter feel a little bit special, I think," Lisa says. "Heading into surgery, it was a diversion. A nice diversion."
The doctor and the 7-footer each showed up in sneakers. Gasol was all business. He had earlier pulled Skaggs aside to make certain he wouldn't be a distraction. Even though the family and the hospital were allowing Gasol in -- along with two TV cameras, to document the day -- he was concerned about Isabelle. He asked the doctor, "Is it really OK that I'm here?"
Skaggs calmed him immediately. He told Gasol that medical students often observe his operations and that he'd once performed surgery with "cameras on my head." He told Gasol to feel absolutely free to ask any question. But to ease the player's worry, the doctor called his OR team together, before the surgery, to say, "Regardless of who's in the room, they're of no importance whatsoever. The girl on the table is Nos. 1, 2 and 3. And the other stuff we just ignore."
Gasol felt relieved, and a surgical assistant showed him how to scrub up -- from his fingernails to his elbows. He followed direction diligently. He seemed to be in his element, and, truth is, he had already consulted his parents about the procedure.
Gasol's mother had asked him why, of all operations, he wanted to sit in on spinal surgery. She felt it might be far too graphic for him, and knew that med students have been known to gag at the sight of an open spine.
But Gasol never wavered, and entered the operating room dressed in the largest surgical mask and scrubs the hospital owned.
"Well, he walked in as I was chiseling someone's spine," Skaggs says. "That's as tough a thing to watch as you probably could."
The doctor was actually in the middle of breaking Isabelle's spine -- so he could eventually reconstruct it. There was the sound of hammering, as if a house were being built. Gasol had a full-on view and began to sweat. There was a real person down there; he could see Isabelle's arm.
"All seriousness," Skaggs told the player, "most people when they first scrub in feel a little dizzy or light-headed. If that happens, you've got to go sit down."
"OK," Gasol answered.
"And tell us if you have an itch," the surgical assistant said. "You have to let it itch. Don't scratch it."
Skaggs explained that he would eventually be using a drill to insert screws into Isabelle's spine. He said he was one of the only doctors who used power tools, but felt he could be more precise that way.
"Not something you see every day," Gasol said.
"No," Skaggs answered. "And this girl is going to gain about an inch-and-a-half in height. She's going to be completely thrilled. Right now her waist looks really funny. Some of the kids like this wear braces. Like Rene Russo, the actress, had this. She said all through high school she never had a date. She thought she was deformed. It's unfortunate. It happens to teenage girls at a time when they're insecure. Like we all are. OK, big round drill, please."
When the drilling began, Gasol turned pale.
"You OK?" the surgical assistant asked.
"Yeah, yeah," Gasol said, laughing gingerly.
"Seriously, if you're getting light-headed, you have to let us know," the assistant said.
"It's OK if you do," Skaggs chimed in. "Don't worry about it. We've all done it. Not a big deal."
"We all did," the assistant said.
"You all did?" Gasol asked.
"I went down once when I was a med student," the assistant said.
"I believe it," Gasol said.
"You want to sit down?" the assistant asked.
Gasol didn't answer. But he was starting to breathe heavily.
"OK," the assistant said. "In through your nose. Out through your mouth."
"It's unbelievable stuff," Gasol said. "Unbelievable. What about when you guys are thirsty or something? What do you do?"
"You don't do anything," the assistant said over a Skaggs chuckle.
"Being a middle-aged guy, I do have to un-scrub sometimes," the doctor said.
"We stay until it's done," the assistant chimed in.
"Until it's done, eh?" Gasol answered.
"Longest one I've ever done is 18 hours," Skaggs said. "But this one should be four hours start to finish."
Gasol looked his palest yet, as the doctor reached for the chisel again.
"Is that a chair?" Gasol said. "Yeah, let me take a seat real quick. Oh my goodness gracious. Woooooo."
The 7-footer kept shaking his head.
As Gasol sat still for a while, med school came rushing back to him.
"I've worked on dead bodies before," he said to another surgical assistant. "But there's still a difference between a dead body and experiencing this."
The drilling was incessant now, and Gasol mentioned his surgical mask was hot and "a little suffocating." The assistant brought him water, which he sipped through a straw. The color was now back in his face.
"I'll be coming back [to witness more operations]," he told them. "Hopefully, consistently -- several times during the year."
He stood up and returned to his spot near Skaggs. Not only was Gasol attentive, but he noticed some of Isabelle's vertebrae had slightly more bend in them than they should have. He alerted the doctor, who corrected it.
Skaggs was impressed; he felt Gasol's questions stacked up to the ones a med student might ask. The surgery was three hours old now, and he decided to wave the player in closer.
"OK, this is kind of the money shot," the doctor said.
He was about to put in two rods and correct the scoliosis. This is why he'd become a surgeon, and he didn't want the Laker to miss it.
"So you can see how the [spine] just went straight," Skaggs told Gasol. "All that we do is for that moment Screwdriver, please."
The doctor was next preparing to "roughen up" the bone and cause thousands of microfractures. "The bone will react by healing," he told Gasol. "So all this bone, each one of these separate ones will grow together. Just like a steel rebar in concrete. And then this will stay in forever and the bone grows into one and she's ready to go."
The staff took X-rays to make sure Isabelle's spine was properly straightened out. Then, the operation was essentially over. Skaggs expected she would be sitting up the next day, walking in two days, doing yoga in three weeks and playing any sport she wanted in three months.
"Pretty amazing," Gasol said, leaving the operating room.
Full of sweat, he entered a locker room, as if he'd just staved off the Celtics.
Gasol's initial comments, once he'd downed more fluids, were, "I'd never seen anything like it I felt a little dizzy I'd be thrilled to be able to be good at changing people's lives like that. Saving people's lives."
Pressed further, he said, "You walk in the room and you see a little girl facedown with a huge cut on her back, her spine all showing. You see the deformity of her back. You see the blood. You see the drilling, the whole procedure with screws. The straightening. You can't get any more intense than that. To be a spinal surgeon, those surgeries are the top of the top. They have lives in their hands.
"I only hoped and dreamed to get to that level, but we'll never know."
I'd never seen anything like it [...] I'd be thrilled to be able to be good at changing people's lives like that. Saving people's lives.” -- Pau Gasol after observing surgery.
He wasn't going to quit the Lakers and head back to med school. He wasn't going to call the dean at the University of Barcelona. He'd made his choice at the age of 18, and his basketball career had turned out well. At 30, he was now arguably the second- or third-most effective big man in the game. The operation hadn't brought regrets; what it brought him was a desire to meet Lisa Shattuck.
Isabelle's mother was in a private waiting room, and when Gasol entered, she was struck by how giant he was, how he had to bend down just to get his forehead through the door.
She asked him how the operation went, and he answered, "Really intense." She thought he looked wrung out, and she told Gasol, "Better you than me. It's not something I'd want to see -- my own daughter's surgery."
They spent about five minutes together -- she'd been to Barcelona during the '92 Olympics; he'd seen Magic Johnson play at the same Olympiad, post-HIV announcement. It was mostly small talk, but at least he was able to bring some levity Lisa's way. He wasn't Roger Federer, but he had legitimately been a welcome diversion. He hadn't changed Isabelle's life, as Skaggs had, but he had brought just the right sort of empathy and bedside manner to Isabelle's family.
"There's no question in my mind that Pau would be one of us if he took the other path and stayed in medical school," Skaggs said later that day. "I kind of feel like he's one of my buddies in the college locker room. I tend to think athletes make the best orthopedic surgeons because those are the guys who can be up all night, get kicked in the face, make mistakes, injure someone and come back the next day with their tail wagging, trying their hardest. This job is definitely not for everybody."
If nothing else, it was the glimpse Gasol wanted, a chance to see what his life might have been had he picked Door No. 2. He left the hospital that afternoon feeling almost euphoric and headed overseas several days later. After a stop at the World Cup in South Africa, he was planning to travel to Ethiopia for UNICEF. He would be cheering up sick children, making sure, of all things, they had sneakers. If he wasn't a doctor, he was at least a close replica.
Meanwhile, 13-year-old Isabelle Shattuck was able to run just three weeks after surgery and, due to her improved posture, was measuring more than 2 inches taller at 5-foot-9.
And when she was wheeled out of Childrens Hospital for good, just five days after the operation, she decided to wear a Lakers T-shirt.
Autographed by Pau Gasol.
Tom Friend is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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