In 1990 I was invited to be Team Doctor / Trainer for an International Women’s Judo competition in Kiev, Russia, (back when it was still the USSR). The Team included 8 athletes, a coach, Jim Hrbec and myself. I was more than happy to go so I soon met the team in New York at JFK Airport. Whenever invited to participate at a tournament as Team Doctor I would receive a packet from US Judo, (the Governing Body for US Olympic Judo), with my itinerary, travel tickets, hotel and transportation vouchers and especially the most recent medical records of everyone on this particular trip. Once I have this packet I thoroughly review all of the records looking for potential problem areas with each athlete and also to see if I had treated this player on previous trips.
International travel almost always includes some sort of unexpected adventure so I prepare for problems and if they don’t happen I’m pleasantly surprised. Sometimes problems are not necessarily “bad” but afford interesting opportunities. During the “red eye” flight from JFK Airport in New York to Moscow, Russia one of the passengers decided he just had to get something out of the overhead compartment. You know when they tell you, “Be careful when you open the overhead storage because the bags may have shifted”? Well, they had and when he opened the compartment a very heavy bag fell out and landed on the head of the elderly man seated under that bin. Flight attendants were called and there was quite a bit of concern because the man’s head was split and he was bleeding and obviously in a lot of pain. One of the flight attendants remembered I was a doctor and asked if I would be willing to take a look at the injured passenger. By the time I got there they had already stopped the bleeding a placed a bandage on his head. He appeared to have a slight concussion and I advised the attendants to move him into First Class so he would be more comfortable and they could keep a close watch on him. They readily agreed and both he and his son were moved up.
I didn’t think much more about this incident until we were in this incredibly long Passport Control line at Moscow Airport. My friend Jim said, “This usually takes 2 to 3 hours”, (large groan from everyone). Suddenly we heard someone shouting and waving his arms. It looked like he was pointing at me! I’m thinking, “Oh no, what now”? Two rather large Russian Security people came over to us and made a gesture for all of us to follow them and said, “You come, all” and started bringing us to the Security Area. The coach, Jim told the group, “Don’t say anything, let me do the talking”. When we finally got to the “control” area I recognized the son of the elderly man I had helped during the flight. He was somehow connected with the Russian Government, had our passports stamped, and brought us through “passport control” in less than 10 minutes! His Dad was at the front of the “control” area waiting for us, gave everyone a big Russian Bear Hug and through his son, who could speak good English, thanked us all for the special treatment he had received in First Class. (This was one “good deed” that went unpunished).
We were met by the Russian Judo Delegation, brought to our hotel and prepared for several days of training, meetings, parties and sightseeing before catching our train to Kiev where the tournament was being held. One of the little adventures in Russia is meeting people who want to buy everything you brought with you to Russia. During one meeting in our hotel a young man was trying to buy my Tony Lllama cowboy boots. After I turned him down he said, “You got five zero one?”
“What?” I asked.
“You know, Levi Jens, five zero one.”
“Oh, you mean Levi 501 Jeans!”
“Yes, yes! Five Zero One. You got?”
As a matter of fact I did but I was wearing them and wasn’t about give them up. After turning down $200.00 he said in a very frustrated voice, “Vat do you Vant?!”
I said, “How about a nuclear submarine?”
In less than a second he said, “How much time you got?”
I won’t say too much about the parties except for one outdoor banquet by a lake outside of Moscow. It was mid June and I just about froze my butt off. What’s the old saying? “The coldest winter I ever had was a summer in San Francisco”? Same thing! My problem was, I don’t drink alcohol so the river of Vodka that was keeping everyone else toasty warm wasn’t helping me at all! Oh well, welcome to the adventures of travel.
Next evening we were able to “stake out” our First Class sleeping compartments on the all night train ride to Kiev. Busses met us at the train station in Kiev and we checked in at our “sports hotel” near the Olympic Training Center there. This week of twice a day training, exercise, treatment and competition was marred by one particularly bad event. One of our “middle weight” players, (in Judo the athletes are called “players”), was sparring with another young woman when she tripped and fell backwards. She extended her left arm behind her to break her fall but when the other player fell on top of her she dislocated her elbow. She was writhing in pain and when I put my hand on her elbow to check the injury all I could feel was mush. Her Radius and Ulna were not where they should have been! I sent someone to call for an ambulance then checked to see if she had a pulse in her wrist. Circulation was good so I packed her in ice and waited for the ambulance. While waiting the coach from China came over and kept telling me, “Pull it! Pull it!” He wanted me to jerk her arm straight and set her elbow. I said, “No thanks, we’ll wait for the x-rays.” When we finally did get to the hospital emergency room we were given priority, took x-rays, (developed in “dip tanks”), and showed me the films, (see figure # 2). Not only had she completely dislocated her elbow she had also shattered the head of the Radius into about six pieces. I was glad I hadn’t listened to the Chinese coach. We were able to carefully set the dislocation then send her for a cast.
During that week I treated athletes from many countries and actually set up a “clinic”. One day Alexiev, (Alex), coach of the Russian Team asked if I could treat him. I think he was surprised I said, “Sure!” because Alex is 6’ 10” and weighs 460 pounds and I don’t think he gets many takers. As you can imagine he was way too big for my table so I adjusted him on the “Tatami Mat”, (floor of Judo competition). I was able to easily adjust his Cervicals but for his mid and lower back I used the “Thoracic Block” technique. The Thoracic Block works great with big people and in fact the bigger the patient the easier it works because you use the patient’s weight to make the adjustment. So I placed the Block under Alex’s back and had him lie back and his spine made several loud audibles. I repeated this two more times with the same result. He got up and told me no one had ever been able to adjust him before. He held the Block in his hands, got this really serious look on his face and said, “I like! You gift to me?” “Sure! Take it!” I said. Man, I couldn’t give him that thing fast enough, (he was really big). He had learned “bone setting” from his grandfather and was very pleased with his new gift. It wasn’t a one-way gift. Before leaving Moscow he presented me with a beautiful antique Russian lacquered “Samovar”. I still have it on display at my home. Good trade.
A couple of days later we finally got ready to head back to Moscow. Our reservations had been screwed up so instead of 4 people per compartment in “First Class”, we ended up in “Cattle Car” with 9 people per compartment, on three-level wooden bunk beds! What a challenge that was. We tried to make the best of it and get as comfortable as possible. Alex’s brother Yevgenny, (Eugene, standing to my left in the photo and who is Alex’s twin brother), said, “Not to vorry, ve eat soon!” Over the next few stops we picked up several more people all carrying food. This was great but by the 4th stop we had about 15 people in that small space. First came Pytor, (Peter), with a bushel basket of fresh strawberries. Next was Gregory who brought the biggest loaf of bread I ever saw. That thing was about 30” across and about 6” high. When he unwrapped it from the thick cloth it was in you could feel the heat coming off it. It was right out of the oven. I can’t remember the name of the next person we picked up but he brought 3 cases of Russian Champagne and several homemade sausages. Then last, but certainly not least was Nicolai, (Nick), who also had a large bundle. When he unwrapped his package I really wasn’t sure what it was but all of the Russian men said, “Ahhhh!” so I thought it must be pretty good. Have you ever seen the really large glass jars you make sun-tea with? Well this jar was at least half again as large but it wasn’t filled with tea, it was filled to the brim with fresh Black Caviar! Nick worked at the Sturgeon Caviar canning factory and was the hit of our little party. The sequence went something like this. Eat a few strawberries, take a big hunk of “peasant bread” and sausage, take a big scoop of Caviar and stuff your face. I have had Caviar before and since but never anything as fresh or wonderful as that. I figure at current prices for Premium Caviar we were putting away about $150.00 per bite!
Finally we were on our return flight home and after getting settled in the young athlete who had dislocated her elbow came up to me and said, “Something’s wrong”. “What?” I asked. She told me her arm was wet and hurting then she tilted her hand downward and there was fluid leaking out of her cast. I thought, “Good grief, what the heck is that?”. I had her sit by me, took my tape scissors out of my kit, (this was when you could still carry scissors onto a plane), cut her cast and peeled it back. There was about a 3” groove cut into her skin from the sharp edges of the casting material. The hospital had not had any gauze or pre-wrap so they just placed the plaster directly onto her skin. Once the cast hardened the jagged edges started digging a cut into her skin and it was the fluid from the cut that was leaking out! I cleaned and dressed the wound, wrapped it in clean gauze, re-applied the cast taping it in place and told her to see her MD as soon as she got home for a new cast. She did and the amazing thing is she was competing again in less than 12 weeks.
American athletes are dedicated, tough and determined. There are many countries in the world that have literally millions of young people competing in Judo. In the US the number is about 50,000 and yet the US Team consistently places in the top 5 or 10 in International Competition, (not to mention the Olympic and World Champions but I’ll save them for another story). Of course much of this has to do with great coaching, support from the National Governing Body and, (thanks to the well run ’84 and ’96 Olympics), good financial aid. But I feel the primary factor is the sheer fierce hard working effort of the individual athlete, not just in Judo, but in all of the Olympic Sports.
Thanks for reading and I especially want to thank the many doctors who have taken time to write or e-mail me about these stories. Thank You!
Dr. Le Beau practices at Chiropractic Industrial and Sports Center; 1365 West Vista Way, Suite 100; Vista, CA 92083. Send your questions to Dr. Le Beau, send them to him at