University of Kansas Medical Center doctor John Alm helps athletes work out their bumps and bruises at the Winter Olympics.
March 27, 2018
By Greg Peters
You'll have to forgive John Alm, D.O., if he seems a little giddy these days. You see the clinical instructor and Interventional Spine Fellow in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation in the School of Medicine just got back from working at one of the world's greatest spectacles - the Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea.
Alm was one of roughly a half dozen non-Korean doctors recruited by the International Olympic Committee to work alongside a team of about a dozen or so Korean doctors to provide medical care for athletes from all the countries competing in the Games.
"Seeing the people from all walks of life and from all around the world was quite an experience," said Alm, who will join the Sports Medicine staff of The University of Kansas Health System in the fall. "I've never done anything of that large a scale. I've worked at some smaller events. I've done some races, marathons and sporting events but nothing of that magnitude."
Alm describes his route to becoming a doctor as a little bit round about. The Morehead, Minnesota, native served 10 years in the Army after graduating from high school. After a decade in the service, Alm decided to turn in his Army boots for medical books and went back to school.
Along the way, he earned a diploma in sports medicine through the International Olympic Committee, and has subsequently done work for the IOC. This exposure to the inner-workings of the Olympics' governing body made him privy to information that put him on fast track to work at the PyeongChang Games.
"The opportunity kind of rose through word of mouth," said Alm, who found out late last summer he had been selected. "There's an application process we all have to go through. Myself, and I don't know how many other physicians from around the world, put our CV's in and filled out the application. And I was selected."
Alm arrived at the Games on the opening weekend and was assigned to work at the medical clinic near the skating venues. The IOC had two medical facilities at the Games, one in the mountains near the skiing venues and the other one near the skating events.
The medical clinic where Alm worked included rehabilitation medicine, orthopedics, internal medicine, ophthalmology, OB-GYN, dentistry and radiology. About half the teams at the Olympics - especially the larger ones such as the United States, Canada and Germany - travel with their own medical teams and rely less on the IOC services.
"We took care of athletes from everywhere in the world," said Alm. "We had a lot of medalists come in - some were pretty well-known in their events. From gold medalists to people who finished in the first round, it seems like everybody had something going on and needed help."
A typical day for Alm involved a lot of travel. The medical team was housed at a resort about an hour's bus ride away from where the clinic was set up. Alm, who shared a room with an orthopedic surgeon from Japan, would get up around 5:30 a.m. to get ready for the day. After taking the bus to the clinic, his work day would start around 8 a.m. and he would work until about 6 or 7 at night before grabbing something to eat and taking the bus back to his room.
Because he was working near the skating venue, Alm took care of a lot of hockey players, speed skaters and figure skaters. He said the most common maladies that he took care of were ankle sprains and stress fractures. An internal medicine doctor took care of illnesses such as the flu.
"You see what the figure skaters do and they are very graceful, but after treating a lot of their injuries I could tell they put their bodies through quite a bit, and it was amazing," Alm said. "They're tough, especially when they are competing and they already have stress fractures in their ankle or foot.
"The athletes put pressure on themselves more than anything," he continued. "For them it's a career - and yes, they made the Olympics, but they also want to be able to continue to compete in whatever event comes next on their schedule. They push themselves, but when doctors tell them about the risks, they take things seriously."
Because of the language barrier among both the medical staff and the athletes, every day was a challenge to communicate, but Alm said there was a fun factor in solving the situation as well. The IOC provided interpreters for English, Japanese, Russian and Chinese to help the medical staff meet the needs of the injured athletes.
The Games themselves were set against a backdrop of rising tensions between North and South Korea. A combined squad made up of athletes from both of the feuding nations competed as one united Korean team. Alm said Olympic spirit was able to carry the day, and the teams functioned as one.
"The South Koreans were very supportive of the North," he said. "You definitely got the sense that they want unification at some point. Obviously, no North Koreans could come watch the Games other than athletes and the designated people who were sent there to cheer. But every time North Koreans would compete, South Koreans would cheer for them as if they were South Korean."
After nearly three weeks of wall-to-wall injury care, Alm was joined by his wife for a little rest and relaxation in Korea before heading back to his job at KU Medical Center. And even though the days were long and grueling, Alm would not hesitate to do it all over again at the Summer Games in two years.
"I'll put my name in the hat for the 2020 Games in Tokyo, and we'll see how it works out," he said. "If it has to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, it was well worth it. To see that kind of event from backstage, it was amazing."