The VOICE of UPMC Shadyside Winter 2023–2024

He Gave Me Hope that I Would Recover

"I have never felt pain like that in my life."

“I knew right away it was a pretty bad injury,” says volleyball player Alexis Fowler, 16. “I went to jump up for the ball, and then someone landed on me. I tore my ACL meniscus and MCL.”

Tears to the ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) and MCL (medial collateral ligament) are common knee injuries, but some are worse than others. Alexis’s was bad. Fighting back tears of pain and fear, she wondered if her dreams of playing her favorite sport had crashed. “I got an MRI and they were like, yeah, you pretty much tore the whole thing,” she remembers.

Fortunately, her dad, John Fowler, MD, is an orthopaedic surgeon at UPMC who knew exactly who to call: Dharmesh Vyas, MD, PhD, an orthopaedic sports medicine specialist who is medical director of UPMC’s Mario Lemieux Sports Complex as well as head team physician of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Dr. Vyas came to Pittsburgh in 2010 for a dedicated fellowship with the legendary Freddie Fu, MD, longtime chairman of the University of Pittsburgh Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, creator of UPMC’s world-renowned sports medicine program, and head team physician for Pitt’s Department of Athletics. Dr. Fu died in 2021, not long after announcing Dr. Vyas’s leadership of the new Sports Complex.

With UPMC Shadyside expanding its dedicated orthopaedic sports medicine program, Dr. Vyas now provides non-operative and operative treatment of sports- and non-sports–related injuries here. He specializes in injuries to the shoulder, hip, and knee. “Shadyside has a great staff, excellent facilities, and it’s very convenient for patients. The nursing staff takes wonderful care of my patients there,” Dr. Vyas says.

“Although we care for professional athletes, I’d say 90 percent of my work really is dedicated to recreational athletes — from eight-year-olds all the way to 80. What we’re trying to do in sports medicine is take these people who are highly functioning and get them back to doing what they love to do. What drives me is the desire and motivation that every active person has to return to their individual sport. That’s the same whether they are a professional or a recreational athlete,” says the surgeon, who has played soccer all his life and suffered his own share of injuries. “I really respected the medical staffs that took care of me. So I wanted to do the same thing for other athletes.

“I feel honored to be able to care for these people,” he adds. “I enjoy my relationships with my patients. Many people, when they are injured, think they’ll never get back to doing what they love to do, whether it’s running, football, or working. After surgery, when they’ve recovered, it’s great to see them realizing that they’re back. That’s very rewarding.”


“You know what? I’m gonna get better.”

So it’s hardly surprising that when Dr. David Glorioso developed head and neck I love playing volleyball so much,” says Alexis Fowler. “I fell in love with it when I was in fourth grade and we were visiting Philly, and I saw all these girls at the USA Volleyball Northeastern Qualifier. I thought it was the coolest thing ever. I had to be part of it. As I got older, I got more and more competitive. I started playing for my school and going to camps. Then I actually got the chance to play in the Northeastern Qualifier — where it all began for me.

“So when I got hurt, I was devastated. But Dr. Vyas was super upfront and so good at explaining everything to me,” says Alexis. “Just the explanation motivated me to keep going.

I feel honored to be able to care for these people.
- Dharmesh Vyas, MD, PhD

“He gave me hope that with hard work, I would recover.

“I am super into science, and he even took pictures during my surgery through the scope, and I thought that was so cool. I got to see how he reconstructed my ACL with a patella tendon autograft. They take a piece of your own patella tendon and attach it to your ACL. The goal is to reconstruct your knee ligament and restore the joint’s stability. It’s crazy how that works.”

Physical therapy played a big part in the young athlete’s recovery. “I went from the day after I tore my ACL, because it really helps with your recovery if you have PT beforehand. I had to be non-weight-bearing for six weeks after surgery, then I started going a lot.

“It was hard. At the very beginning I thought about giving up. I went to see all the Pitt volleyball games and I remember thinking, am I ever going to be able to do this again? But there was a moment when I realized, ‘You know what, I’m gonna get better.’ And then I really started working hard, and I think that made so much of a difference. Even just the mindset of it.

“I even got cleared to play a little earlier than they had originally said,” Alexis recalls. “Dr. Vyas made me feel very confident about it. So it’s just crazy how far I came in a year. That is so exciting.”

Dr. Vyas made me feel very confident about it.
- Alexis Fowler

On the wall of Dr. Dharmesh Vyas’s office is one framed Pittsburgh Penguins jersey — No. 58. Kris Letang. Brilliant, powerful defenseman and two-time stroke survivor at the age of 36. Handwritten on the jersey is, “Thanks for everything you’ve done for me. You saved my life. And today I’m able to play again. Without you, my life wouldn’t be the same.”

As the Penguins’ head team physician, Dr. Vyas attends every game, on the alert and prepared for any potential injury. Middle-of-the-night surgeries are not uncommon. And with UPMC’s big sports medicine fellowship program, he teaches fellows how to care for professional athletes. He also travels to many away games, making the Penguins one of only two teams in the NHL with their own traveling team physician.

“We provide more service than many teams in the league in terms of the number of medical staff,” Dr. Vyas says. “At UPMC, we have several great physicians in practically every medical subspecialty. We take advantage of this luxury 
 by inviting teams of consultants to help us provide the best possible care of our athletes.”

“Dharmesh and I have built a bond,” says Kris Letang. 
 “The fact that we travel on the road together, we’re always at the rink, it’s more of a family kind of environment.”

Kris remembers when he had his first stroke, in 2014. He was 26 years old. “At the time, we were traveling to Los Angeles, and I don’t know how I made it on the plane, but when I got on, I said, ‘Doc, something crazy happened to me this morning. The room was starting to spin, and I couldn’t even walk.’

“He pulled me out of the game in LA because he felt I was not right. The next day, he and I went to the stroke institute because he thought maybe that’s what happened. And after a long, long MRI, he was waiting for me outside. He was like, ‘Kris, you might want to sit down for this because it’s not good news. You had a stroke.’ So I spent several days with him trying to figure out how it happened, why it happened, and the road to recovery from that. He knew I wanted to come back stronger than ever.

“A bad thing like that kind of creates a bond between a patient and a doctor,” Kris continues. “His cellphone is always available. Every time I had a question, he would talk with me or be part of a meeting with me to talk to different doctors, get different opinions. So to me, he’s more than a doctor. He became a friend and kind of a confidant.

“Also, I had neck surgery. So whether it was my neck, strokes, or multiple injuries, he’s been there on my side. Everything on my health, he’s the one that manages it. He knows when something’s up and something’s wrong. He will listen, and he’ll know if you’re uncomfortable, unsure, or if you want a different opinion.”


“Making things better, that’s his goal”

“I don’t think I would have the career I had if I didn’t have somebody that was looking over my shoulder like Dr. Vyas does,” Kris adds. “That was special. And there’s something about feeling confident to go to work and knowing that somebody is right behind you and you can fully trust.

“Making things better, that’s his goal. He always says to me, ‘This is not only for tomorrow, it’s for the rest of your life. That’s why we’re being careful with everything.’ So it’s both physical and psychological, the whole recovery. That’s what good doctors do. They put you in a state of confidence.”

A devoted family man, Kris loves that “my wife and kids have always been behind me and supporting me. Whether it’s good or bad, they were always there. And they always kind of suggest to me to do what I love to do and make sure I do it in a healthy way.”

Kris is also known for his intense commitment to keeping his body strong. His workouts are famously grueling. “I think this kind of training can be a physical advantage when you play a sport like ice hockey,” he says. “You want every little thing to be on your side. So I try not to leave anything up for grabs by doing that type of workout.”

In 2023, Kris Letang was awarded the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, given annually to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to ice hockey. He had a list of people to thank, and one of the first was Dr. Dharmesh Vyas.

“You saved my life.”

Without you, my life wouldn’t be the same.
- Kris Letang talks about building a bond with Dr. Dharmesh Vyas