Steady hands, all heart: Remembering Dr. Richard Steadman, the trailblazing orthopedic surgeon who leaves a legacy of generosity
Renowned knee surgeon remembered for kindness, humility, generosity
Growing up, Shirley Carlson’s daughters knew their mom’s boss, Dr. Richard Steadman, and wanted to find a boss just like him. They’re both still looking.
Steadman, 85, died Jan. 20 at his home in Vail. His passing was peaceful, in his sleep.
In the days after his death, those who knew him told largely the same story of a quiet, passionate man who was also a trailblazing orthopedic surgeon. Steadman, a knee specialist, worked on any number of athletes, from the world-famous to high schoolers. He innovated the idea that patients shouldn’t spend weeks in a plaster cast. Instead, those patients started working on movement as soon as possible after surgery.
Former ski racer Cindy Nelson, who won a bronze medal at the 1976 Winter Olympics, credited Steadman’s skill and encouragement with boosting her career.
“I owe all my successes to Dr. Steadman,” Nelson said.
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Steadman was like a second father to a host of U.S. Ski Team athletes, many of whom stayed in the Steadman family home before and after surgery.
“It was such a fabulous experience in very trying times,” Nelson said. “He helped develop our own character outside of skiing.”
A house full of athletes
Having a house full of ski racers created some bed-juggling for Steadman’s son, Lyon, and daughter Liddy.
Lyon once said to Nelson, “So you’re the one who took over my bedroom.”
After a day of work, Steadman would often come home and work late into the night helping athletes with physical therapy. He’d be out early the next morning to start the routine again.
Despite a career dedicated to serving as many patients as possible, Lyon recalled his father as being “very participating” in his childhood.
Lyon noted that when his father was doing residency work in New Orleans, the family would often have lunch at the hospital cafeteria.
But, Lyon added, his father was always running late — spending an extra 10, 15 or 40 minutes with a patient — so there was a lot of waiting.
“My mom (Gay) had to figure out a way to entertain two young kids, so she invented a slow walking contest,” Lyon recalled.
In those New Orleans days, Lyon and other kids would gather on the family home’s front lawn, playing football and other games.
Steadman, who briefly played football at Texas A&M under legendary coach Paul “Bear” Bryant before focusing on a medical career, taught his son how to throw and catch, and would sometimes join the neighborhood kids.
“I was the coolest kid on the block,” Lyon recalled.
A real team effort
As Steadman built his practice, he and the family relocated to South Lake Tahoe, California. It was there he built a core team of nurses and physical therapists. It was there where Steadman met and recruited Carlson, along with Cristal Adams. Both remained with Steadman for more than 30 years, and relocated from South Lake Tahoe to Vail.
“From Day 1, I knew it was a total gift” to work with Steadman, Adams said. “It’s one of the biggest blessings of my life.”
As the team developed, Carlson was soon Steadman’s surgical nurse while Adams focused on patient care before and after a procedure.
Athletes from just about every imaginable sport came under Steadman’s care, from renowned professionals to high school athletes.
The list included legends in tennis (Martina Navratilova) and golf (Greg Norman) to a who’s-who of Hall of Fame NFL quarterbacks — Dan Marino, Joe Montana and John Elway each had Steadman operate on their knees.
“I’m sure there were many (athletes) who came in very nervous and anxious,” Adams said.
Then they’d meet with their surgeon.
“He was quite confident and calming,” Adams said .”He’d say, ‘I’m going to repair (your knee) and you’re going to come back stronger than ever.’”
And, Adams said, no matter if someone was famous or just hurt, when Steadman sat down with a patient, that person had the doctor’s full attention.
Adams said she learned over the years that Steadman would always sit on a stool so he’d look up at a patient.
“That spoke volumes to me,” Adams said. “I’ve heard it dozens and dozens of times — (a patient) felt like they were the only patient in the world.”
Again, it didn’t matter who the patient was.
In South Lake Tahoe, Carlson’s husband, John, was an assistant football coach at a small school just across the Nevada border.
Steadman learned that there wasn’t a team doctor for the squad, so he and his wife, Gay, were soon on the sidelines during the games, and would treat injured players.
Years later, when the Carlsons were invited to the clinic’s suite at the Denver Broncos’ stadium, John would say, “remember when you stood on the sidelines” at that small high school.
Former Vail Associates owner George Gillett was among the non-elite athletes who came under Steadman’s care. Nelson was working for the ski company at the time, and recommended her old ski team doctor to her new boss. Gillett’s knee surgery and recovery were successful, Nelson recalled. That led Gillett in the late 1980s to think Vail needed first-class orthopedics to match the mountain’s first-class skiing.
A package was put together and an offer was made to move the practice to Vail.
Before moving, though, Steadman asked every team member, individually, if they were willing to move. If anyone said no, the move was off.
Adams recalled hearing about Vail from Carlson, adding that it “took about 90 seconds” to convince her.
Surgery and research
The move to Vail, and a partnership with Dr. Richard Hawkins, a shoulder specialist, created the Steadman Hawkins Clinic. As the practice grew, the Steadman Hawkins Clinic in Denver was established. Hawkins later moved to South Carolina to continue work there and establish the Steadman Hawkins Clinic of the Carolinas. In Vail, Dr. Marc Philippon, a hip specialist, joined the practice. The Steadman Philippon Research Institute soon was created to further explore new surgical and recovery techniques.
That recovery work included Topper Hagerman and John Atkins, who also came to Vail from South Lake Tahoe. Their physical therapy practice was linked to the clinic and eventually became the Howard Head Sports Medicine practice.
Surgery and recovery were “a team effort,” Hagerman recalled. The small physical therapy room was just down the hall from the small surgical center in Tahoe.
Doctors would come down the hall to talk about patients and vice versa.
“We were spoiled — we’d start at 8 a.m. and go to 8 p.m.,” Hagerman recalled. “The fellowship was excellent, and we became very good friends.”
Beyond their own patients, Steadman and other clinic surgeons were eager to help as many people as possible through the efforts of fellowships and research results.
The clinic and foundation were “very special,” Hagerman recalled. They wanted other physicians practicing techniques that had been successful in Vail.
Hagerman, like others, praised Steadman’s unfailing calm and courtesy with coworkers, patients and others.
Lyon, who spent a couple of stints running the business side of the operation, said his father “made me a lot better, even on the business side of things.” That’s unusual for doctors, he noted.
“He taught me to (be generous), to be diplomatic and be kind to people,” he said. Steadman also left his son a legacy of generosity.
“A trademark of his was whenever he’d take people to dinner, he’d always pay; it didn’t matter who,” he noted.
Hagerman noted that sometimes, at the end of a long day, Steadman would walk down the hall to the physical therapy room and just talk.
“We’d talk about life, the day and so on… He’s a legacy and a legend,” Hagerman said.