Fit to a T
Former Stuntman-Turned-Golf ProBy: Roxanne Jones
“My body’s been through a lot,” says Gregg Sawaya. At age 52, he’s undergone two hip replacements and a partial shoulder replacement, the legacy of his early career as a Hollywood stuntman.
“I grew up in the motion picture business; my father was in it for almost 50 years,” Sawaya recalls. “So I got into the business right out of high school and did stunts for about 12 years.”
“It wasn’t uncommon to work two shows in one day in the eighties,” he continues. “I’d work on Airwolf or Night Rider, then go to work on The A-Team. I was usually a soldier or a cop, and there were always lots of explosions. I also worked as the stunt coordinator on Quincy, M.E.”
By the mid- to late eighties, however, computer-generated imagery was changing the industry, making stuntmen “prehistoric,” Sawaya says.
From stuntman to golf pro
“That was part of my decision to pursue my dream of going to college,” he explains. “I had a passion for golf, and I’d heard that the College of the Desert (COD) offered a degree in golf management. So I left the motion picture business in 1987 and went to the Institute of Golf Management at COD, got my Associates in Arts degree, became a member of the Southern California Professional Golf Association and started teaching golf here in the desert.”
Sawaya loved his new career.
“Not many people can say their office is a huge park with 18 holes,” he says. “It’s a great outdoor activity, and a skill that can last a lifetime.”
Giving back through golf
Sawaya’s love for the game and desire to give back motivated him to introduce golf to the Special Olympics Southern California in 1995 as a demonstration sport. He served as the organization’s director of golf operations for several years.
He also worked with at-risk kids after school, teaching golf as a way to help them stay away from drugs and gangs. “I’m really proud that I was able to introduce golf to kids who otherwise might never have had the opportunity to know the game,” he says. “It’s a great game to help keep kids away from negative influences.”
When joints go bad
In 2008, however, Sawaya started having problems with his left hip. It turned out that he had a condition called avascular necrosis. Also known as osteonecrosis, it is a disease that results from loss of blood supply to the bones. Without blood, the bone tissue dies and, ultimately, the bone may collapse. When this process involves the bones near a joint, it can lead to collapse of the joint surface. Avascular necrosis most commonly affects the ends of the femur, the bone that extends from the knee joint to the hip joint.
As a result of this condition, in 2009 Sawaya underwent a total joint replacement of his left hip. Shortly thereafter, he started having problems with his left shoulder. Doctors determined that he had a displaced humeral head fracture — a fracture of bone of the upper part of the arm (humerus). Since these types of fractures usually occur due to a fall onto the arm, it was likely caused from Sawaya’s time as a stuntman.
“Aggressively using my body as a stuntman, I’d get cortisone injections between shows [to manage the pain], but it was just a band aid,” he says. “It didn’t address the bigger issue.”
The fracture in his left shoulder was severe enough to require a partial shoulder replacement. In December 2010, Sawaya underwent a procedure called a hemiarthroplasty at another facility.
In the meantime, doctors discovered that he had bilateralavascular necrosis, which meant he had the condition in both hips. As a result, he underwent a second hip replacement in 2011, this time at Eisenhower Medical Center. It was performed by Eisenhower Desert Orthopedic Center Orthopedic Surgeon James A. Bell, MD, PhD, who specializes in orthopedic trauma, sports medicine and joint replacement.
With all the joint prostheses in his body, Sawaya acquired the nickname “The Bionic Man.” Despite the moniker, however, he hadn’t been able to play golf since his first hip problem. Then, in late 2012, his new shoulder began bothering him.
A second shoulder surgery
“I was having a lot of pain and my range of motion was getting more limited,” he says. “I asked Dr. Bell who he’d have operate on him if he were in my shoes and he said the best surgeon for shoulders is Dr. St. Pierre. And he was awesome.”
Patrick St. Pierre, MD, specializes in sports medicine and the care of shoulders and elbows. In fact, he is the only orthopedic surgeon in the desert who is a member of the American Shoulder and Elbow Surgeons, an elite, invitation-only organization with about 300 members worldwide.
“The pain in Mr. Sawaya’s shoulder was a result of excess bone growing around the humeral head and impinging on his range of motion, which can sometimes happen as the bone heals around the prosthesis,” Dr. St. Pierre explains. “In these cases, a second surgery is required.”
“During the procedure, I went in to make sure the prosthesis wasn’t loose, trimmed the bone and took out some bone spurs that also were contributing to the problem,” he continues. “It wasn’t a huge surgery; he just needed a revision to make it better. And he is much better now.”
Dr. St. Pierre performed this second surgery on Sawaya’s left shoulder in March 2013.
“I really appreciate that Dr. St. Pierre’s approach was minimally invasive,” Sawaya says. “Instead of removing or replacing everything, he worked with what was there and I commend him for that.
“And it’s always a pleasure to see him,” Sawaya adds. “His office always runs like clockwork and appointments are always on time. He’s very respectful of the patient.” Sawaya also gives high marks to Dr. St. Pierre’s physician assistant Greg Lanier, PA.
The role of physical therapy
The revision surgery, however, was just the first step toward Sawaya regaining the use of his left shoulder and, ultimately, returning to the game of golf. Rehabilitation — a prescribed regimen of physical therapy (PT) — was the essential next step.
“The surgeon takes care of structural deficiencies, but there is often a lot of soft tissue trauma from the surgery and the previous injury,” explains Paige Larson, MPT, Director, Physical Therapy, Eisenhower Desert Orthopedic Center. “Physical therapists work to help the patient achieve range of motion, regain strength and decrease pain in order to return to their prior level of function.”
“When we first see a patient, we spend an hour taking a detailed history and looking objectively at his or her current range of motion and strength,” she says. “Then we devise a program that’s specific to the individual patient’s needs and personal goals. You can’t treat everyone the same.”
Eisenhower Desert Orthopedic Center’s Physical Therapy department includes three to five physical therapists and two to four physical therapy assistants, depending on the season. Annually, the team handles nearly 11,000 patient visits.
Lorraine Lau, PT, was the therapist assigned to Gregg Sawaya. She began working with him in the summer of 2013.
“He had a lot of pain; that was his biggest issue,” Lau recalls. “He was trying to recover from shoulder surgery and was having a hard time even carrying items that weighed less than five pounds and taking care of himself at home because everything hurt.”
“Gregg wanted to be able to be independent without pain, to do normal, everyday activities like dressing himself, chores around the house and driving,” she continues. “When he first came in, he was kind of depressed because the shoulder pain had been limiting his life for a while.”
“It was hard being away from the game,” Sawaya admits. “There are 130-plus golf courses here in the desert; it’s hard to drive a block without seeing one. So it’s been tough since giving my last lesson on November 1, 2008, when my first hip went bad.”
“Gregg was motivated to do whatever he needed to get better,” Lau says. “Usually, we start with two or three exercises but he wanted to do multiple reps, so he had to learn to back off and balance between too little and too much pain.”
“Initially, we were aiming to get his range of motion back in his shoulder,” she continues. “Then we focused on strengthening his rotator cuff and shoulder blade stabilizers, then on to body mechanics, core strength and posture.”
“A lot of times, when someone gets injured or has surgery, they don’t understand why they got hurt in the first place,” Lau adds. “So we look at how the patient bends to pick up something, how they walk. There are subtle differences about postural awareness we can teach to help them avoid hurting themselves again. When someone is willing to listen and take the time to pay attention, it can make a big difference.”
“I’m on the road to recovery”
Sawaya initially saw Lau twice a week for nine weeks, and then received another prescription to continue the PT for several more weeks. In between PT sessions, he does exercises at home using Thera-Bands® — latex resistance bands that help build strength.
He also regularly ices his shoulder to reduce inflammation, and uses a TENS unit to aid in pain management. TENS stands for transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, a technique used to relieve pain in an injured or diseased part of the body. Electrodes are applied to the skin and deliver intermittent stimulation to surface nerves, blocking the transmission of pain signals.
“I’m seeing progress and am on the road to recovery,” Sawaya says. “I expected my recovery to take a long time. There had been some muscle atrophy because I didn’t do much after my first shoulder surgery in 2010.”
His rehabilitation has been further complicated by a case of plantar fasciitis, a painful inflammation of the connective tissue or ligament on the sole of the foot. Sawaya recently saw Podiatrist Michael W. Seiberg, DPM, who prescribed a special splint. “The plantar fasciitis made it tough to be on my feet, but I’m taking it in stride,” Sawaya says —pun intended.
And he remains cautiously optimistic that a return to playing golf is in his future.
“Between Dr. St. Pierre’s work and the physical therapy, I’m hopeful that I’ll get some form of golf back into my life, whether teaching or just for enjoyment,” Sawaya says.
Dr. St. Pierre believes Sawaya is doing very well. “He should be able to play again,” he says. “He’s certainly positive and motivated.” “Whether you’ve had a motor vehicle accident or worked as a stuntman and have multiple injuries, there’s still light at the end of the tunnel,” Dr. St. Pierre adds. “Getting surgery and the appropriate physical therapy can get you back to a healthy and more normal lifestyle, and you can be involved in leisure activities such as golf.”
“It’s a long battle, but I haven’t given up,” Sawaya says. “I have a fantastic team at Eisenhower Desert Orthopedic Center. I think the PT folks are hands-down the best in the business — and I saw a lot of physical therapists during my years as a stuntman. I give the this team five stars — no, ten stars. They’re the crème de la crème.”