Breaking Big League Barriers
By: Katherine Dvorak
In September 1933, the Pittsburgh Steelers, then called the Pittsburgh Pirates, took to the gridiron for the first time to play the New York Giants. Seventy years later, in a role still dominated by men, Robin West, MD ’97, RESD ’02, added to the team’s storied history as assistant team physician for 11 seasons and three Super Bowls.
West says she never thought about the barriers she overcame as a woman in sports medicine. Even when shattering glass ceilings by earning positions as director of sports medicine and head team physician for the Washington Redskins and lead team physician for the Washington Nationals — the first woman to hold both titles — West says what matters most is a strong work ethic, integrity, and humility.
“My mom raised me as a single [parent], and she taught me to believe that there really are no barriers and that you can achieve anything you want to achieve,” West says.
Before her work in Washington, D.C., West added another “first” to her resume; in 2014 she became the chair of Inova Health System’s newly established Sports Medicine Program. It’s a highlight of her career.
“I got to build it from the ground up — there was nothing — and in the past three years we’ve really made something unique,” she says. The goal of the program, she adds, is “to be a one-stop shop for athletes of all ages and all abilities.”
Returning to D.C. was a homecoming, she adds. West moved to the east coast from California to attend Johns Hopkins University, and stayed for medical school and residency in orthopaedic surgery at George Washington University.
West chose orthopaedic surgery as her specialty because it enabled her to work in sports medicine and treat patients of all ages, she says. “I always wanted to take care of little kids, adults, and grandparents, and be able to treat a whole family of patients. That’s why I ultimately chose sports medicine. I have these motivated patients who are really involved in their health care and trying to get back to play,” she explains.
West became lead team physician for the Nationals in October 2015, and the director of sports medicine for the Redskins in June 2016. Between the work she does for the two teams — including traveling with the Redskins for away games and with the Nationals for playoffs — as well as her role at Inova, it’s a lot to balance.
But juggling jobs is nothing new for West; while in Pittsburgh she worked not only with the Steelers, but also as head team physician at Carnegie Mellon University and head team physician at the University of Pittsburgh for its wrestling, swimming/diving, gymnastics, and men’s basketball teams.
So how does she coordinate so many roles at once?
“I think balance is always difficult. No one’s going to be in balance perfectly, but what I try to do is surround myself with really dependable people who have the same values I do. I rely on them in all aspects of my life,” she explains. “I rely on my husband to help with our family and our kids at home, and then I rely on my colleagues at work; they have a huge role in the building of our sports medicine program. I really believe in the ‘TEAM’ acronym: Together Everyone Achieves More.”
As with most people working in so many different capacities, West says there’s no typical day, week, or even season for her.
West’s responsibilities with the Redskins include regular visits to the training room to see players and working the sidelines for every pre-season, regular season, and post-season game. “With the NFL, we are really under the spotlight, because during these games the cameras are on us and they’re following us, so we have to be fast and reactive to these injuries,” West says.
When the Nationals are playing, the team physicians will attend to athletes during the game, splitting the games between them, as well as evaluating the players the next day. It’s different from working with the NFL. “We’re not on TV, we’re behind the scenes working on injury prevention; we’re treating overuse and chronic-type injuries. Because it’s a much longer season, the stopwatch is not on us as much, and we have a little more time if somebody’s injured,” she says.
No matter where West is, under bright stadium lights, in the operating room, or in the clinic, she’s doing what she always wanted to do: treating patients and getting them back to play. “I love being able to care for them through the injury and through recovery,” she says. “The journey is what makes the whole experience.”