October 8, 2004

In life and work, Spindler’s always been a good sport

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Kurt Spindler, medical director of Vanderbilt Sports Medicine, is right at home in the training room at McGugin Center, which is where he spends the bulk of his time at work.
photo by Dana Johnson

In life and work, Spindler’s always been a good sport

Kurt Spindler, left, medical director of Vanderbilt Sports Medicine, serves as the head team physician for Vanderbilt Athletics. He is on the sidelines for every Commodores football game, along with coach Bobby Johnson.
photo by Dana Johnson

Kurt Spindler, left, medical director of Vanderbilt Sports Medicine, serves as the head team physician for Vanderbilt Athletics. He is on the sidelines for every Commodores football game, along with coach Bobby Johnson.
photo by Dana Johnson

The family that plays together, stays together. The Spindlers on vacation — Kurt, his wife, Teresa, and their children, Eric and Kelsey.

The family that plays together, stays together. The Spindlers on vacation — Kurt, his wife, Teresa, and their children, Eric and Kelsey.

In his spare time, Spindler enjoys hot-air ballooning in the Vanderbilt Sports Medicine balloon, traveling extensively throughout the country.

In his spare time, Spindler enjoys hot-air ballooning in the Vanderbilt Sports Medicine balloon, traveling extensively throughout the country.

Spindler examines Commodore wide receiver Eric Davis in the training room at McGugin Center after a recent practice.
photo by Dana Johnson

Spindler examines Commodore wide receiver Eric Davis in the training room at McGugin Center after a recent practice.
photo by Dana Johnson

There aren’t many things that can make Kurt Spindler, M.D. slow down. Active since he learned to crawl, it’s against the man’s nature to sit still. Even a traumatic injury during a high school football game nearly two decades ago amounted to nothing more than a speed bump in Spindler’s path, though it could have brought him to a screeching halt.

“I remember the orthopaedic surgeon telling me ‘you’ll never walk right after the surgery,’ which was a reasonable assumption,” Spindler says now. “I remember telling him, ‘Oh, I don’t need to walk, I need to play football again.’”

And he did.

Spindler, medical director of Vanderbilt Sports Medicine, tore a muscle during that football game in 1975. The tear, which Spindler initially ignored and hoped would go away, led to severe swelling, which began killing a nerve in his leg.

While Spindler says he was very fortunate that most of the nerve recovered, he’s quick to point out that the injury did cost him a year of football and wrestling. What he didn’t know at the time was that the injury would have a profound impact on the rest of his life.


Growing up in Bergen County, N.J., Spindler spent every moment he could playing outdoors, the background framed by the Manhattan skyline.

“I think that from the time the sun came up, I would go outside and play, and I would only come in when the sun came down,” he says. “I would be out playing with friends, playing ball, riding a bike — just being active.”

It was his mother, Dorothy Spindler, who fostered his love for sports. An active woman and a sports fan in her own right, Dorothy would watch the games on TV and even get outside and toss the football with Spindler and his brother, Mark.

“I would get out there and throw the football with the boys, but then they got too big and started beating up on me,” Dorothy remembers with a laugh.

“She was always my biggest cheerleader,” Spindler says.

Together, Spindler and his mother watched his first football game. It was the Dallas Cowboys versus the Green Bay Packers.

“I just remember rooting for the team in white, which was the Cowboys,” he says.

Spindler’s childhood centered on being active and heavily involved in athletics. He played every sport he could, had his parents constantly driving him from one field to another, and loved every minute of it. But his active lifestyle didn’t leave much time for his schoolwork.

“I was not a stellar student,” Spindler says, “and unfortunately, I have the records to prove it.”

Spindler, like so many boys, had his heart set on being a professional athlete. His dream job was playing professional football as a tight end.

“I needed to be 6’4”, 230 pounds and run a 4.7 [second] 40 [yard dash]. Of which, I’m not anywhere close, except for the appetite,” Spindler jokes.

It was his high school football injury, however, that helped him realize that while playing at a professional level wasn’t in his future, sports still could be.

“I think I was smart enough in high school to realize that I wasn’t good enough to play athletics outside of college, and said, ‘well, you can treat them for the rest of your life,’” Spindler explains.

Making the grade

Although he hadn’t been a straight-A student in high school, Spindler’s friends and family didn’t doubt his ability to achieve in college. They knew that when he set his mind to something — like playing football after his injury — he would do it.

“He’s always been so determined, even as a small child,” says Spindler’s father, Hardy. “If he says he’s going to do something, he’s going to do it. If today he told me that he’d be president of the United States in four years, I’d believe him.”

“It’s amazing to watch him decide something and set his mind to it,” Dorothy says.

And Spindler was determined to make good grades and earn the G.P.A. he needed to get into medical school. But it wasn’t easy.

“College was payback for being a poor student in high school,” he says.

It meant a change from playing ball every day to playing ball a couple times a week and studying every spare moment. Although Spindler entered Rutgers College with an eye toward some form of medicine, his experience as an injured athlete left him thinking about sports medicine in particular.

“My first summer, I decided I really wanted to see what sports medicine was like, because it really interested me,” Spindler says. “So I arranged a private internship with the team physician for the New York Giants.”

Just 19 years old, Spindler called up the National Football League team’s physician and said he would like to spend a month working with him.

“The physician said ‘no one has ever done that,’” Spindler explains. “I told him, ‘I know, I just want to follow you around, I won’t bother you.’”

They met for lunch, and Spindler ended up spending a month at the Giants’ camp.

“It was one of the most fun things I did,” Spindler says. The team physician told Spindler that if he was interested in sports medicine, he should decide on whether or not to be a surgeon, and what he wanted to do regarding team coverage and academics.

“I knew I wanted to do research, and I knew I wanted to be a surgeon because I wanted to take care of the whole spectrum of evaluation, injury, surgical treatment and rehabilitation, and I knew I wanted to work with high-level athletes,” Spindler says.

“I’m just one of those odd people who knew exactly what I wanted to do very early on. And I guess I never really lost sight of the ball. It just took me 12 years to get there.”

Over those 12 years, Spindler graduated with highest honors and a B.A. in Biology from Rutgers, earned his M.D. at the University of Pennsylvania and remained at Penn to serve a General Surgery Internship, a year of Orthopaedic research and an Orthopaedic Surgery residency. He then completed a Sports Medicine/Orthopaedics fellowship at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation before coming to Vanderbilt in 1991 as assistant professor of Orthopaedics and Rehabilitation.

Family ties

Over those 12 years of education and study, Spindler also married his high school sweetheart, Teresa. They began dating while he was a senior and she was a junior, and married when Spindler was mid-way through medical school in 1983. When he moved to Vanderbilt, it was as a family of four.

“It’s an amazing transformation from being kids that are clueless to being adults with two teenagers. It’s the best thing, to be married to your best friend,” Spindler says.

“We grew up together,” Teresa explains. “We met in high school, went to two proms together, and have stayed together for 21 years. And we still have a lot of fun. The fact that he’s a doctor now is beside the point; to me he’s just Kurt.”

And to their two children, Eric, 16, and Kelsey, 13, he’s just “Dad.” Right now, Spindler says, doing whatever they want to do is his first priority.

“My son is a great sports fan, and we go to the Super Bowl now every year, and he loves it. And it’s like having your own ESPN announcer, because Eric knows all the players,” Spindler says. “My daughter is also an active athlete. She likes volleyball, basketball, and track and is busy with that.”

Spindler continues to be active himself, running and biking. He’s even run in several marathons.

“For me, being physically fit is critical. I think it is because: number one, you can eat more. The more you work the more you can eat. And it’s great for your energy level and for stress relief,” Spindler says. “I always make time to exercise.”

According to Teresa, Spindler always makes time for his family as well, and they also make it a point to find some time for just the two of them.

“Every year we take a long weekend, just the two of us,” Spindler says. “Last year we went to Universal Studios to go to the amusement park. It was tremendous fun, something we had done together in high school.”

“We rode every roller coaster we could get on,” Teresa recalls.

Over the years, winding their way from a view of the Manhattan skyline to 30 acres in Franklin, Tenn., Spindler and Teresa say it’s a journey they’re glad they’ve taken together.

“She’s certainly the stability behind me, that person who keeps me grounded,” Spindler says.

Hitting for the cycle

Spindler would never consider taking a job at Vanderbilt as merely “taking a job.” To him, it’s fulfilling a dream and being given the opportunity to do what he loves — be academically involved, provide great patient care and cover high-level athletes.

“I’m one of those fortunate people who love what I do for a living,” he says.

When Spindler came to Vanderbilt in 1991, the Sports Medicine Center had just been established. Since then, the center has surged from 1,100 visits to 40,000 visits a year. Its phenomenal growth, some say, is largely due to Spindler’s passion, determination and leadership.

“He has been the driving force behind taking Vanderbilt’s Sports Medicine program from what it was in ’91 to what it is today,” says Tom Bossung, head athletic trainer for Vanderbilt Athletics.

Spindler gives the credit back to the team.

“It’s a team effort. All things that are really good that happen, happen through teams, they don’t happen through individuals. And no individual can take credit for what a team of people worked on together to achieve,” Spindler says. “Whether I’m fortunate enough to be the leader of that team is one thing, but it’s a team of individuals that accomplishes all really worthwhile goals.”

Spindler’s ability to look to the future and continue setting goals is driving faculty to want to be on his team.

“Part of the reason I came to Vanderbilt is because I think Kurt has a vision for the future of academic Orthopaedic Medicine that’s more complete than anyone I’ve met,” says John Kuhn, M.D., associate professor of Orthopaedics and Rehabilitation and Chief of Shoulder Surgery. “He has an understanding of the ongoing challenges, and has the best business sense of anyone I know. Under his leadership, I see our program surviving and even excelling during difficult times.”

Spindler’s colleagues say his positive attitude is another reason they’re glad to be on his team.

“Kurt is very accomplished, but doesn’t do things for his own ego. He’s definitely confident, but he does things for something greater than himself. I think people around him see that and are motivated to do the same,” Kuhn says.

Bossung agrees, “Personally, he has made me a better athletic trainer because of his high standards, and I feel privileged to work with him.”

Over his 13 years at Vanderbilt, Spindler has also succeeded on a personal level.

He is currently full professor and vice chair of Orthopaedics and Rehabilitation, medical director of the Vanderbilt Sports Medicine Center, as well as the Orthopaedic Patient Care Center, and head team physician for Vanderbilt’s athletics. He has implemented the Multi-center Orthopaedic Outcomes Network (MOON), an evidence-based medicine effort he thought up during his fellowship, and also serves as grant reviewer for the NIH and chairman of the Grant Review Committee of the National Football League.

For Spindler, it all goes back to his love for what he does.

More than a fan

A reporter once asked Spindler if he got a special feeling from taking care of an elite athlete. To the reporter’s surprise, Spindler responded, “no.”

“Anyone who’s active and can’t use their knee or their shoulder, if I can use my expertise to make them better, and get them back to their activity, that gives me equal pleasure. It’s the feeling that I can get someone back to doing what they really want to do that drives me,” Spindler says. “As long as the biggest enjoyment I get is when they say ‘thank you’ to me, then I’m in it for the right reason.”

Spindler does enjoy working with athletes, though, and volunteers countless hours to Vanderbilt’s numerous athletic teams. It’s a labor of love, he says.

“If you really love sports, what you can contribute is your medical expertise,” Spindler says. “If I can contribute in any way to their success — make the right call, or tell them when not to play, or tell them to treat their injury — then I can contribute in a way that I have some skill level that they don’t have.”

Working with athletes also drives Spindler to perform at a higher level.

“They really sharpen skills, because your margin of error in getting them better is really small,” he says. “The bar at which you have to practice and the level of detail is much higher with these athletes. There’s a sense of urgency and 90 percent is no good. They can’t perform at 90 percent; they’ll lose. So if you can treat elite athletes, you learn the best operations, the best skills and techniques, and you can apply them to the rest of your patients.”

Head Women’s Tennis Coach Geoff MacDonald says it’s Spindler’s understanding of the athlete that makes him a stellar team physician.

“He’s demanding and tough, but he also shows a very human side. As an athlete himself, he’s very aggressive and wants you to do what you can do. He understands you need to keep moving, and he never stops moving himself. He gets more done in a day than anyone I know,” MacDonald says.

Despite all of the demands on Spindler’s time, MacDonald says he responds quickly to athletes, giving them the attention and care they need as soon as possible.

“They can’t wait three weeks for a consult, and Dr. Spindler knows that. He does a good job at seeing them quickly,” MacDonald says.

Spindler understands what injured athletes need, because he has felt the same pain — not only from his high school gridiron injury, but from standing on the sidelines unable to play.

During that year in high school almost 20 years ago, Spindler’s mother taught him an important aspect of caring for athletes, an attitude he brings to each patient he cares for.

“All through that [recovery], she didn’t say I couldn’t. She was always hopeful and encouraging, and would say ‘if you want to do this, why don’t you try,’” Spindler says. “My mother’s approach was the right one — don’t say no, but don’t say yes. Say ‘let’s see what you can do.’ I try to be honest with the individual, but I don’t destroy their emotional courage, which is needed to get better.”

With each patient he sees, each athlete he treats, Spindler passes on some of that determination that got him back on the playing field. In his research and his academic roles, he’s passing on that determination to the field of Orthopaedics.

And he has absolutely no intention of slowing down.