November 2, 2010
He’s charming, educated, handsome, charismatic, athletic, funny, wealthy, humble, esteemed, a total heartthrob and, quite frankly, one of the last people you ever want to meet.
He is knee surgeon extraordinaire Vern Cooley. Or, as I affectionately call him The Grim Kneeper. And if you haven’t had the pleasure of meeting him, chances are you just haven’t been skiing long enough.
Vern estimates that he’s repaired over 10,000 knees during his surgical career, a good majority of which are from ski-related injuries. And though he knows he’s about the last guy any skier wants to encounter, he takes it all on the chin. "It’s a good thing my feelings aren’t easily hurt. A lot of people probably wouldn’t want a job where no one wants to meet them," he jokes.
So, in a valiant effort to keep them from being the next knee on his operating table, Dr. Cooley has some advice for hopeful non-patients.
"The biggest mistake people make is they start training right now for the ski season, just a few weeks before it starts. You really should start training at least six months before the season, so your ligaments and tendons are at their strongest."
Vern adds that strength training should include a variety of exercises that work your core muscles and focus on balance, flexibility and, most importantly, endurance. "People usually don’t crash in the first turn or two. They crash when they’re tired and their legs are burning."
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To strengthen your core, Vern recommends doing planks for 60 seconds at a time. For balance, try standing on one leg with your eyes closed for at least one minute. And for endurance, lots of cardio options will get you there anything from running to biking to yoga.
But one of the most important things you can do is pay to play. "You really need to be using good, modern equipment. If your skis could be on display at the Smithsonian, your chances for injury increase dramatically."
Vern also recommends one more on-the-mountain tidbit to avoid him. "Your DIN settings really need to be within the recommended level. Ski racers in particular love to crank their bindings so they never pop out. It’s not a coincidence that a whole bunch of my patients are ski racers."
Of course, despite all the advice and preemptive measures, no doubt someone’s going to blow a knee this season. And if it’s you, at least you can find comfort knowing that the most dreaded man for a skier to meet is also one of the most beloved.
Just ask Parkite Scott Greenwood, who drank the Cooley Kool-Aid years ago and came back for a refill last week. "When you think of golf, you think of Tiger Woods. When you think of basketball, you think of Michael Jordan. And when you think of knee surgery, you think of Vern Cooley," he says.
Over the years Vern has developed an almost cult-like following, and Scott is just one of thousands of loyal repeat customers. "When you’re an athlete, the idea of someone having a scalpel to your knee is pretty terrifying. But Vern has a way of putting everyone at ease. He almost makes you want to have knee surgery. Almost."
For Vern, putting people at ease is just part of the job. "Because so many people in Park City thrive on being outdoors and involved in sports, a knee injury is particularly devastating news. I see them at their most vulnerable, and over the years I’ve learned that if I take care of them, treat them right and listen to their needs, they develop a fierce loyalty. I often meet them as patients, but they leave as friends."
But despite his amicable bedside manner and expert hands, I’d venture to say Vern’s most appealing attribute is that he thinks like an athlete. He once gave me permission (albeit incredibly reluctant and marginally forced) to heli-ski three days before he repaired my knee. "I get it. I’m a bit of a delinquent myself. Life is all about risk and reward. You need to have fun, and if your body pays the price for that fun occasionally, that’s what I’m here for."
That of course is a philosophy with limited extensions. When I asked him how he’d react to the news of one of his children wanting to be a ski racer, he replied, "I’d probably push them in the direction of something less dangerous. Like wrestling great white sharks or taming grizzly bears."
Dangerous or not, we live here because we love to ski. And some of us will pay the piper for our passion this season. But, at least for the ladies reading this, there is one thing more devastating than hearing you need knee surgery. It’s this: Vern Cooley is happily married.
Amy Roberts is the public relations director for Park City Medical Center. In a former life she worked in TV news, both as a reporter and sports anchor. She has bagged peaks on six continents, kayaked the Zambezi and Nile rivers, swam with great white sharks in South Africa and tracked mountain gorillas in Rwanda. In her spare time, Amy can be found skiing, mountain biking, hiking, running, and playing soccer.