PHYSICIAN SPOTLIGHT: At This Year’s Olympics, U.S. Athletes Mourn the Loss of Craig Ferrell
Medical News Journalist Recalls Ferrell’s Life and His Contributions
Craig Ferrell (right) is pictured at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. This photo is priceless to the others in the picture and to Ferrell’s family. On the left is Jim Wolf, now executive director of sport programs at the U.S. Equestrian Federation. In
“He was just a brilliant man, and we were very fortunate to have him with us for as long as we did. It was a real shock to lose him, and we’ll try to soldier on without him, which is what he would have wanted.”
Those are the words of Jim Wolf, executive director of sport programs for the U.S. Equestrian Federation, and he was talking to Nashville Medical News about Franklin orthopaedist M. Craig Ferrell, MD, who died in May after a tragic fall from his polo pony on his Williamson County farm.
The USEF had no greater booster than Craig. A gifted surgeon and caring doctor, a beloved family man, a noted humanitarian, an active community leader, an avid sportsman, an internationally renowned supporter of amateur athletics and an Olympic physician, Craig boasted a bigger-than-life reputation, and his contributions in so many arenas touched so many lives.
As a journalist, I should refer to the subjects of my stories by their last name, but when I typed “Ferrell,” it just didn’t feel right. He was Craig, the astoundingly handsome oldest brother of my dear friend, Karen, when we were growing up in Tullahoma, Tenn.
Karen and I wore a path around the base of a towering oak tree where the corners of our backyards met. When Craig was 16 years old, we were just 10, and our antics were met by either a Craig eye roll or a tousle of our hair.
It was the 1960s, and the Ferrells had an extraordinary thing in their back yard – an in-ground swimming pool. It was beyond cool when Craig and/or Jack, the middle Ferrell child, jumped in the water with us. All the Ferrell kids were amazing swimmers, and I could sit on my patio and watch their graceful and sometimes antic dives from the springboard. Almost as much fun was spying on Craig and his beautiful girlfriend, Lorraine. I remember their wedding, a touching Catholic mass with Lorraine in the most stunning wedding gown I had ever seen. When Craig died, he and Lorraine had been married for 42 years.
Craig and Lorraine are the parents of two sons. Aaron and his wife, Tanya, welcomed their son, Michael Cannon, into the world the day before Craig died, allowing Craig to meet his second grandchild. The Ferrells’ son, Jonathan, was born with Down’s syndrome, and Brightstone, Williamson County’s cutting-edge program for adults with disabilities, is Jon’s mainstay. Brightstone might not even exist except for the Ferrells’ unwavering support.
Craig and Lorraine’s support for amateur athletics and America’s Olympic athletes was just as steadfast. I mentioned Craig was a swimmer … but that was an understatement. He was a member of the varsity swim team at his undergraduate alma mater, the University of Notre Dame, and he naturally entered the world of amateur athletics via his swimming contacts.
Part of that aquatic inspiration was his dad, Joel Ferrell. I remember Mr. Ferrell as a towering man who always greeted me with, “Why, hello, Miss Sharon.” To me, he was just a dad who usually wore a white, short-sleeved dress shirt. To the world, however, he was president of the Amateur Athletic Union and a former vice president of the U.S. Olympic Committee. Each year the AAU recognizes the top athlete in each official sport with the Joel Ferrell Outstanding Performance Memorial Award.
Craig worked his way up amateur swimming circles and eventually chaired the USA Swimming Sports Medicine Division for about a decade. In 1988, he was the physician at training camp for the U.S. Olympic swimmers but didn’t travel to Seoul, Korea. He filled the same role in 1992, and he did travel with the team to Barcelona, Spain. Then, in 1996 in Atlanta, Craig reached the top, serving as one of eight U.S. Olympic Committee team physicians. “You usually only get to do that once in your lifetime,” Craig told me when I interviewed him for a Nashville Medical News Physician Spotlight in 2004.
It was in Atlanta where Craig forged his relationship with America’s equestrian athletes and with Jim Wolf. The pair became very close friends, and Craig was a member of Wolf’s wedding party. Craig was the Olympic equestrian team physician in 2000 in Sydney, in 2004 in Athens and in 2008 in Beijing. Craig would have headed to London for the 2012 Olympic Games, and Lorraine did accompany America’s equestrian athletes to the United Kingdom.
Wolf recalled when Craig was assigned to America’s equestrians in 1996. “We immediately recognized in Craig someone who could really enhance the performance of our athletes. He was a very knowledgeable, sports medicine, orthopaedic doctor, but he also had a real understanding for high-level competition. He had been the U.S. swim team’s doctor for quite some time when he came to us so he understood top international competition and elite athletes. He just had an incredibly good bedside manner on top of being exceedingly good at what he did,” Wolf said.
At the time of his death, Craig was the chair of the International Equestrian Federation Medical Committee. “He was doing very good work, trying to, ironically, keep the sport as safe as it can be for the riders. He had done a lot of work with impact testing, and he got us involved with Vanderbilt University and Dr. Allen Sills to do impact testing for the athletes,” Wolf said. Then he added, “Craig just cared deeply about all of his patients; and for athletes, he knew that it was a 24-hour-seven-day-a-week job. When they’re injured, that’s when they need you.”
That dedication is apparent when you read comments from McLain Ward, a two-time Olympic gold medalist who blew out his kneecap during an event in Florida in January. Ward is a 2012 Olympic athlete, and he believes it’s because of Craig’s surgical skills and his support that he’s back in the saddle. “Dr. Ferrell has been a friend for years now, but in the past year, he has been a saving grace for me. Through my injury, he has been a huge shoulder to lean on for my wife and I. Hearing the news of his accident has shaken us to our core. … It is hard to express what this man has done for me over the past four months. Things like this should not happen to people like him,” Ward said.
Yet for most of his life, the things that did ‘happen’ were extraordinary. There’s that saying: “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” Craig epitomized that. Franklin’s first orthopaedist, he founded the Bone & Joint Clinic in 1979, and in 2009, Craig forged his thriving clinic with the Vanderbilt University Department of Orthopaedics. Craig received his medical degree from Tulane University in New Orleans and remained in New Orleans for his internship and general surgery residency at the Ochsner Clinic. He completed his orthopaedic surgery residency at the Campbell Clinic in Memphis.
Wolf said he talks to Lorraine every day, and he tells her, “It’s never going to get easier.” As he told me this, his voice cracked with emotion. So many people feel this way, and for so many different reasons. A few weeks ago, I was enjoying Murfreesboro’s bountiful Saturday morning farmers’ market on the Square. Draped across my left shoulder was a huge bag of produce, including a cantaloupe, a small watermelon, ears of corn, squash and other veggies. The bag was heavy, but I didn’t notice. Then I thought of Craig and the work he did on my shoulder. He acknowledged that when he got into the surgery, the damage was much worse than he anticipated. But he “soldiered on,” as Wolf would say, and spent much more time than was allotted for my procedure. He knew I loved golf, and he said he was treating my shoulder “as that of a much younger person. I want you out on that course again,” he said.
I am back on the course, when time allows. Thanks to Craig, my shoulder is just fine … I wish I could say the same for my game.
Sharon Fitzgerald is a senior staff writer for Medical News and a lecturer with the School of Journalism for Middle Tennessee State University.