In the OR there's a sense of reverence for what's going on at the moment. It doesn't matter who it is, every knee gets the same attention. —Vern Cooley
PARK CITY — If he's heard it once, he's heard it the requisite thousand times … and counting.
"Fix my knee just like you fixed Tiger's."
And every time, orthopedic surgeon Vern Cooley has the same reply.
It's going on four years now since Dr. Cooley walked into the operating room with his mentor and partner, Dr. Tom Rosenberg, and together they repaired the anterior cruciate ligament in Tiger Woods' left knee.
It was far from the first knee — or last — belonging to a star athlete that either of them had worked on. Half the U.S. Ski Team calls these guys by their first names, and they're no strangers to the Utah Jazz and other professional sports teams, as well as the athletic departments at various colleges and universities. And that's not to mention the literally thousands of knees — most of them belonging to your neighbors and mine — they've "fixed" over the years.
But save one billionaire superstar's career — one who publicly acknowledges your work — and the world never lets you forget it.
"We've become good friends," says Cooley of Woods, and while Cooley hasn't been consulted about trying to repair Tiger's more recent non-knee troubles, he is of the opinion that his golf career, given Tiger's work ethic and determination, will eventually rebound.
And he's absolutely confident of one thing. That left knee of his was repaired right, and in the right place.
"I think sometimes people who live in Utah have the mentality that you have to go somewhere else," he says, "when the truth is, you can find what you need right here."
Vern Cooley's life is proof of that.
He was born in Salt Lake City and raised in a house on Yale Avenue, not far from East High School. When he was 16 and completely absorbed in sports – playing on the East football team and throwing the shot put for the track team — a young, single guy driving a Land Cruiser moved into the house next door and gave him a new aspiration.
"The new guy's cool," Vern remembers his dad telling him. "You should get to know him."
The neighbor's name was Tom Rosenberg.
When he asked what Rosenberg did for a living, Rosenberg didn't just tell him, he showed him. He took the teenager to his office, toured him around the operating room and explained the nuances of orthopedic surgery, including the relatively new non-invasive arthroscopic procedures that were first practiced in the United States in the 1970s by Salt Lake City's own Dr. Robert Metcalf. Barely into their 30s and standing on Metcalf's shoulders, Rosenberg and his partner, Lonnie Paulos, were already assuming a position among the top knee and shoulder surgeons in the country.
From that moment on, Vern Cooley knew what he wanted to do with his life. He wanted to be just like them.
But first, he had to deal with cancer.
When he was 18, he was forced to put football, school, girls and all else on hold when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. The cancer had spread to his lungs and lymph nodes, and the odds said he wouldn't make it. But under circumstances similar to what Lance Armstrong would later confront, Cooley fought the good fight with a combination of chemotherapy, surgery and first-rate medical care. Within a year he emerged cancer-free.
If being a doctor had a grip on him before, now it had a stranglehold.
Long story (and longer days) short: Cooley graduated from the University of Utah, got his medical degree at Harvard, did an internship followed by a four-year residency at the University of Washington, and then returned to Utah in 1996 for a one-year fellowship at The Orthopedic Specialty Hospital, the cutting edge facility in Murray run by his former next-door neighbor … Tom Rosenberg.
"Nothing was ever said verbally that I would come back and work with Tom," remembers Vern. "It was just kinda understood by all parties, providing it all worked out."
The big unknown was how Cooley would perform in the OR. "There's no way to know until you get there," says Vern.
As soon as Cooley got there, everyone knew.
He's been operating ever since.
In 2002, not long after Rosenberg and Cooley had relocated their practice to Park City, where they've partnered with Robert Metcalf's son Mike, Tiger Woods began experiencing knee pain. Woods consulted with his physical therapist in Las Vegas, Keith Kleven, a native Utahn, who gave Tiger the names of five leading orthopedic surgeon groups around the country. Rosenberg and Cooley were on the list.
Tiger made a visit to Park City, everyone hit it off.
Woods had arthroscopic surgery in late 2002 to remove a cyst on his ACL. That held until 2008, when Tiger returned to Rosenberg and Cooley for another scope after the Masters in April to remove damaged cartilage. He was in need of ACL ligament replacement surgery right then, but he wanted to hold off until he played in the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines in San Diego in June.
That's the tournament Tiger won on one leg. A week later, he was in Park City, staring up at Rosenberg and Cooley.
The ACL reconstruction surgery was pronounced a resounding success by all concerned, greatly expanding Rosenberg and Cooley's reputation, especially in the pop culture world, even though the doctors made it a point then, and continue to make the point, that the procedure on Tiger Woods was similar to thousands just like it — and that it was performed no differently.
"In the OR there's a sense of reverence for what's going on at the moment," says Cooley. "It doesn't matter who it is, every knee gets the same attention."
Having said that, the famous Utah doctor who worked on Tiger Woods allows a grin to spread across his face.
"But yeah," he adds, "you do think twice when it's a billion-dollar knee."
Which only makes it that much better for the next person in line.
Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays and Fridays. Email: [email protected]