After six months of treating patients at USC, the Upper Extremity Athlete Fellowship gives fellows the opportunity to partner with San Diego Padres for real-world experience and networking opportunities.
BY ANDREW FAUGHT
ALAN NG WAS A CATCHER ON HIS New York high school’s baseball team when the game turned mean. He tore the posterior cruciate ligament in his knee, where two bundles of collagen fibers connect the upper and lower leg.
Physical therapy returned Ng to the playing field, this time as an outfielder. But that wasn’t the only good news. Rehabilitation fired a passion in Ng to become a physical therapist. He’d go on to earn his doctor of physical therapy degree from New York University, and for the past seven years he’s treated a variety of patients in New York and Southern California.
These days, he’s looking to focus his treatments on injuries common among athletes who rely on overhead arm motion, such as baseball players.
Ng is the second fellow to enroll in USC’s Upper Extremity Athlete Physical Therapy Fellowship, a collaboration with Major League Baseball’s San Diego Padres. With the start of spring training in late February, Ng will help provide long-term physical therapy at the Padres’ team complex in Peoria, Ariz. He’ll work with major leaguers and prospects alike, including athletes rehabilitating from slow-healing elbow injuries and ligament tears.
“I’m a diehard baseball fan, so the fellowship is a good match for me,” Ng says. “There’s a lot of didactic content that’s made me more educated on rehab for the baseball athlete. It’s very specific, and unlike other sports. It’s a good learning experience.”
For the first six months of the year-long fellowship, which started in August, Ng is in Los Angeles caring for sports and orthopedic physical therapy patients as well as USC baseball players. Aiding Ng are expert clinician mentors from USC who specialize in upper extremity care.
While baseball injuries are the focus of the fellowship, Ng will be exposed to a variety of upper extremity-focused maladies during his time at USC, including injuries suffered during rock climbing, professional volleyball tournaments and swimming, says Jonathan Sum ’01, DPT ‘05, fellowship director and associate professor of clinical physical therapy.
Ng will spend the second half of the fellowship working in Peoria, Ariz., at the Padres Rehab Facility.
Not only does the fellowship give the USC Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy national visibility among professional sports leagues, but it also provides Ng the opportunity to develop his skills and to network in what is typically a tough-to-penetrate industry.
“I thought the fellowship would be the best way to break into that circle,” says Ng, who hopes to focus his career on athletes recovering from arm, elbow and hand injuries. “I’ll get the advanced training that I need to do my job well, but at the same time I’ll get the networking that I probably wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.”
The USC fellowship program would be the second of four university-based programs partnering with Major League Baseball teams. The other university-based programs include the Ohio State University (Cleveland Guardians); the University of Wisconsin (Toronto Blue Jays) and the University of Miami (Toronto Blue Jays). Other fellowship programs include ATI Physical Therapy (Kansas City Royals, Colorado Rockies); Hospital for Special Surgery (New York Mets); and Bodycentral Physical Therapy (Cincinnati Reds).
Sum says the fellowship is undergoing accreditation by the American Board of Physical Therapy Residency and Fellowship Education. Accreditation will serve as an important imprimatur that “we’re meeting and exceeding defined practice standards,” but it also gives fellows a stamp of approval among prospective employers, he adds.
USC began offering the fellowship in 2019, when it had an arrangement with the Los Angeles Angels, but COVID-19 curtailed duties of the inaugural fellows. The Angels have since shuffled their physical therapy department. Now the fellowship is back, and hopes are high.
“By training upper extremity fellows at the highest level, I’m hoping that we’re going to redefine baseball medicine in whatever capacity we can,” Sum says. Being on of the first universities on the West Coast to collaborate with a professional sports team is also a big deal.”
Sum has also established an Upper Extremity Fellowship Collaborative, where fellows from programs across the country meet on bimonthly Zoom calls, learning from experts in the field, presenting patient cases and discussing treatment challenges.
While upper extremity injuries aren’t the most prevalent setback in baseball — that distinction goes to the hamstrings — pitchers in the 2020s are being encouraged to throw with higher velocity. That puts elbow health at increased risk for procedures such as the Tommy John surgery, which reconstructs the ulnar collateral ligament. Recovery time is often more than 16 months, on average. And the procedure is increasingly being done in youth throwers.
“I’m going to go on the record and put the blame on velocity starting too young,” Sum says. “There’s an emphasis on throwing hard and throwing too much. And it’s happening at a younger and younger age.”
With the Padres, Ng will work with team physical therapist Scott Hacker, who has been with the team since 2015. The Padres have used physical therapy interns in the past, but the fellowship allows the team “to kick it up a notch.”
“We’re getting a very high-level physical therapist,” Hacker says of Ng. “That fits with our standards and our model — someone that’s very academic, and who will bring influences in from USC.
“Baseball rehab is a little different than standard sports rehab or outpatient rehab,” he adds. “We’re receiving the benefit of this academic push. We’re also getting someone who we can teach and mentor, which is a huge component of our philosophy as a medical staff.”
The fellowship, Hacker says, will make it easier for MLB teams to hire qualified candidates. In Arizona, he notes, Ng will be a visible presence, working in the weight room on strength conditioning and collaborating with a pitching coach who works exclusively on rehabilitation.
Ng graduated from the Bronx High School of Science, a short ride from Yankee Stadium. His personal and professional sensibilities will not be affected, he assures.
“The joke in the professional circle is, ‘I’m a fan of whoever signs my paycheck,” Ng says. “Deep down, I’m always going to be a New York Yankee fan.”
But, he adds with a laugh, “I’ll not let it influence me professionally.”