Dr. Leigh Ann Curl is an orthopedic surgeon who combines her skills as a doctor with her interest and background in top-level athletics. Along with an appointment as assistant professor of orthopedic surgery at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, she was appointed orthopedic surgeon for the Baltimore Ravens. She is the first and only woman to be a team physician in the National Football League.
Leigh Ann Curl was born in 1963 and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She is the second of six children, and excelled at sports as a child. "I was the tomboy of the neighborhood. I was the little girl who had the baseball glove on, and the softball in her hand, and hats." Curl's mother had been a basketball player and athlete growing up, and both parents fostered her interest in sports. "My parents didn't discourage me from doing something that at that time was a bit atypical...for what little girls did." As a surprise, her mother sometimes would take her out of school to see the Pittsburgh Pirates. Tragically, her mother died from a cerebral aneurysm when she was 14 years old and a freshman in high school. Her home life was devastated. Curl says that her interest in sportsalong with her school, teammates, and coacheskept her focused and grounded during the difficult time that followed.
Curl did well academically and attended the University of Connecticut on a basketball scholarship. While in college she gravitated to the sciences, and studied chemistry, biology, and physiology. She graduated summa cum laude in 1985, and was class valedictorian. She was also a four-year starter on the women's basketball team, serving two years as team captain. She finished her athletic career among the all-time leaders in points and rebounds at the University of Connecticut. She was twice named a GTE Academic All-America, and was a two-time Big East Conference Scholar-Athlete of the Year.
Curl says her decision to go into medicine was not part of a firm plan. Because of her academic record, however, and interest in science people encouraged her to become a doctor. At the insistence of one of her college professors, Curl applied to and was accepted at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. She says she did not know a lot about medical schools when she applied. "I'm ashamed to admit it, but at that time I really didn't know about Hopkins...the whole medicine thing was foreign to me," she says.
Curl received her doctor of medicine degree from Hopkins in 1989, where she also served her internship and residency. Her decision to go into orthopedics was easy: she loved the technical and manual nature of it. Orthopedics is still not often a woman's field. When she began her residency, Dr. Curl was the only woman in her class of 120 medical students to go into orthopedics. During interviews she got some questions such as "Can you physically do it?" or "Aren't you going to get married and have children?" "I overcame that by not giving anybody room to question my ability or confidence," says Dr. Curl.
Following her residency, Curl did a fellowship in sports medicine and shoulder surgery from 1994 to 1995 at the Hospital for Special Surgery at Cornell University in New York City. Given her athletic background, Curl concedes it was no surprise she ended up doing sports medicine. Of all the subspecialties in orthopedicshand surgery, spine surgery, pediatrics, tumors, foot and ankle, traumashe liked the "shoulder-knee stuff" the best. During her fellowship, she worked as a team physician for St. John's University, the New York Mets, and the New York City public schools recreation program.
Before joining the faculty at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Dr. Curl served as assistant professor of orthopedic surgery and sports medicine at the University of Maryland Medical System. She was also the head team physician for the University of Maryland Terrapins from 1997 to 2002, and volunteered as a team physician for USA Women's Basketball, USA Women's Rugby, and Johns Hopkins University.
It was while Dr. Curl was at the University of Maryland that she first became affiliated with the Ravens football team. An orthopedic surgeon she had known from her fellowship training days in New York was the head team physician for the Ravens, and recruited Curl to be the head team physician for the University of Maryland. In that capacity Curl began to help out with the Ravens. Later, when her colleague left the Ravens, Curl was offered a spot on the team.
As a team physician for the Ravens, Dr. Curl is responsible for players when they get injured or hurt on the field. "You're constantly surveying the field to make sure that after every play, all eleven guys are up. If a player goes down on the field, you basically run out there, make a quick assessment of what's going on, and decide whether it's safe to move them and get them off the field." If players need surgeries, she usually handles those as well. It's a highly visible job, but she says she actually spends more time seeing patients, and teaching residents and medical students. During her first year with the Ravens they went to the Super Bowl. "That was fun," she says. As a former athlete, Dr. Curl finds she is able to connect with the players in the training room better than some doctors. "I kind of know what the practice schedule is like, and I know what they might be doing on the field in terms of practice. More than telling them what they can't do...I can actually tell them what they can do."
In addition to seeing patients, teaching, and working with the Ravens, Dr. Curl is currently interested in knee and shoulder injuries, especially the increasingly common anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) problems of female athletes. The ACL is one of the major stabilizing ligaments in the knee. Women athletes are tearing their ACL at a rate four to six times higher than their male colleagues in the same sports. Curl has been conducting some research to find out why.
Dr. Curl regularly puts in sixteen-hour days, and says that orthopedics can be a very hands-on, physically demanding specialty. Some days she does four or five cases in the operating room, and might see thirty or forty patients in her office. It is a life that requires discipline and some sacrifice. "I have a lot of obligations, and I'm balancing a lot of things," she says. "But somehow I was able to acquire the fundamental abilities to do that when I was a little kid." What keeps her motivated, she says, is taking a patient with a problem that "no one else wanted to fix, or no one else was willing to fix, and I am able to fix it."
Dr. Curl is a fellow of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgery, and in 1998 was inducted into the GTE Academic Hall of Fame.