When Dave Atkin, MD, won the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons’ (AAOS) 2021 Humanitarian Award, he reflected upon the seemingly endless opportunities afforded by his career choice.
“All healthcare workers are humanitarians,” says Atkin, of San Francisco.
He’s taken his career far beyond what “might be expected,” as a board member and surgeon team leader with the nonprofit Operation Rainbow. The organization has provided more than 18,000 free orthopedic surgeries in 18 countries thus far, mainly in Latin America.
Atkin stays super-busy in his own backyard, too, as the only private practice orthopedic surgeon working daily in the underserved communities of Southeast San Francisco, where patients are primarily Latinx and African American, he says.
The first doctor in his family, Atkin credits his parents with teaching him kindness and the care of others. But he says those who choose healthcare “use our careers to better other’s lives. There’s something within us that really wants to alleviate suffering, and some often do so at great personal sacrifice—and most of us find the work deeply fulfilling.”
For Atkin, the hot topics of diversity, equity, and inclusion resonate consistently in his daily work, and he says many opportunities exist to embrace them “by simply accepting and promoting our patients and coworkers who are different from us.”
He recalls a mentor who told him, “The patient is the universe, and when you walk in that room, nothing else matters other than the patient’s needs. The closer you can keep to that fundamental rule, the more success and fulfillment you will find in medicine.”
At his clinic, Atkin goes the extra mile by giving all his SOMA Orthopedics patients his email and cell phone, which, one might think, makes him always accessible. “If patients feel they have access, they really don’t worry so much,” he says. “They feel safe and supported, and don’t escalate in their fears.”
To fellow practitioners who may find some patients “difficult to reach,” he says cultural communication styles are part of what makes practicing medicine so fascinating. “Try to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, to understand if they really have the same advantages and opportunities that you have. Maybe yes, maybe no. Many patients who are initially guarded are really overjoyed to see that someone is trying to communicate with them in ways that are socially or culturally appropriate.”
He discovered mission work his first year in medical school and went to Africa. “This is the purest form of medicine—with compassion and hard work,” says Atkin. “There’s no transfer of money, no distrust, no agenda other than helping as many as you can with the resources you have.”
Atkin says there was no other doctor where he initially went, but that he felt very comfortable assuming the responsibility of treating a community—as he still does now, in his 28th year. “This is as gratifying to me as when I first stepped in the door, and I felt like I was being effective, not doing something that was redundant.”
He appreciates the continuity. “It’s really wonderful to take care of multiple generations of the same families,” Atkin says. He makes pro bono house calls and may drop in with a pair of donated orthopedic braces for those patients on MediCal or who are uninsured—many are elderly.
He was also instrumental in saving what was formerly St. Luke’s Hospital when he joined it—it was deeply in debt. Founded in 1871, it is now California Pacific Medical Center.
“Its mission was to treat all equally, regardless of race, creed, or color, and I felt it was the right institution for me,” says Atkin, who began a charity clinic there in 1995. When the hospital was slated for closure, he worked tirelessly with the city’s Board of Supervisors and the mayor to find a solution.
That solution ultimately became a $536 million hospital, and Atkin was instrumental in fundraising. “We galvanized the community to understand how critical this hospital was for the south-of-Market-Street community,” he says. “Every time I walk through the doors, my heart swells at the site of this beautiful hospital.”
An accomplished surfer himself, and father of two, Atkin is also on the board of MeWater Foundation, which addresses mental health, particularly stress and trauma, for children who’ve experienced poverty and violence in the Bay Area. “It’s hard to comprehend what life is like for many children of color, whose neighborhoods are all concrete,” he says. “We introduce children ages 2 to 18 to nature, go camping, go to the marina, and take them surfing. It can be an epiphany for them.”
Mentorship is a big part of MeWater, and it continues synergistically with yet another philanthropic effort, College Track, he says. Atkin has been involved there for 25 years, knowing that kids from eighth grade through college need someone to lean on.
“It’s not just about getting kids into college, but supporting them emotionally, academically, and financially to succeed in their jobs,” he says. “We get 99 percent of children into a two- or four-year college.”
The words “I can’t” don’t resonate for this optimistic and multitasking orthopedic surgeon.
“AAOS is 40,000 strong,” he says. “As an academy, if we all work together, I really believe we can change the world.”
This year, orthopedic surgeon Keith S. Feder, MD, proudly accepted AAOS’s Humanitarian Award and credits the organization for “supporting orthopedic surgeons in a very circumferential way. There’s lots of education, and lots of collegial interaction, along with forums to present ideas and discuss interesting surgical cases.”
He says AAOS “is all about patient care, and always has been.” The awards “recognize and encourage members to do outstanding work in the community,” he says, and Feder should know.
With a consistently busy practice, West Coast Center for Orthopedic Surgery in Manhattan Beach, California, Feder’s “other job” is overseeing his multi-pronged and beloved West Coast Sports Medicine Foundation, begun in 1994. He “gets” sports injuries, having played basketball and football in high school, and basketball and lacrosse in college, and he continues to play Masters Basketball.
“Being an athlete is critical to understanding how athletes get injured and how they should be treated,” he says. “Team sports are the best educators for life, to learn how to socialize in a team setting.”
The foundation makes it possible for economically deprived high school students “to participate in interscholastic sports, promote fitness, have access to quality sports medicine care and services designed to improve health and ensure safety,” it says.
He recalls the program’s origins at then Daniel Freeman Memorial Hospital in Englewood. In 1992, Feder, the hospital’s CEO, and a few NFL football players recognized that “inner city kids weren’t getting proper sports care,” he says.
“We provided six certified athletic trainers to six high schools in the first year,” says Feder. “The hospital also provided free on-site medical care.” Soon the program included 18 high schools and was on its way to making real and positive change.
State law mandated that children playing high school sports must have health insurance, and kids coming to Feder’s office didn’t have it. “We took care of them anyway,” he says. “Daniel Freeman provided blanket coverage for sports injuries for male and female student athletes. Remember, though, that not every student athlete gets injured.”
In 2004, when the hospital was bought by for-profit Centinela Freeman HealthSystem. Feder was recruited to do sports medicine, with one provision—that the new owners would support his program, which they did, and it eventually expanded to 28 high schools.
The foundation remains committed to carrying its fair share of fiscal responsibility by having actively fundraised more than $20 million.
Its banner program is Team to Win, and under it, the Scholar Athlete program honors the most outstanding student athletes who also care about community, from participating high schools. They’re voted on by high school administrators and as many as nine receive a one-year college scholarship annually.
Knowing everyone needs some support sometimes, Feder ensures that his sports medicine mentoring program retains a laser focus. The broader curriculum offers free educational workshops, at beginning and advanced levels, for students who think sports medicine and athletic training might be their career cup of tea. It’s another welcome boost to counter the current and predicted shortages of healthcare providers.
Mentorship participants learn about topics including anatomy, physiology, injury recognition, evaluation, treatment, rehabilitation, and prevention.
“Graduates of the program become eligible to work as a student athletic trainer at their high school, alongside certified athletic trainers,” says Feder. “It’s well known that a certified athletic trainer is the key component of care in the athletic setting, not just for musculoskeletal care, but for the health of the athlete overall.”
The foundation also holds several camps each summer for high school students and completed two in July 2022.
He’s justifiably thrilled that more than 4,000 students have successfully undertaken the program, and that everyone has also graduated from high school and at least attended secondary school. Many have not stopped there.
“Doctors, chiropractors, and physical therapists have come out of our program,” he says.
The foundation continues to be available to 13,000 high school student athletes in Los Angeles County, which research has shown sustains high student-poverty levels. Now, the foundation also offers a network of primary care physicians, along with orthopedic surgeons that include a group of his former fellows. It also supports two physician fellowships annually, in orthopedic and sports medicine.
For Feder, orthopedic surgery may be at least a nine-to-five commitment in the office, but there’s more. For his students, it is about whether you win—at sports and at life—and how you play the game with a healthy body and mind.