Feb. 7, 2014
By Joanne C. Gerstner
Dr. Jeffrey Kutcher is ready for an extended, far-away-from-home work trip over the next two weeks. Kutcher, who normally works as a sports neurologist for the University of Michigan Health System and as the team neurologist for Michigan Athletics, will be finding himself on foreign territory -- literally and figuratively -- in the mountains of Russia.
Kutcher will be working at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games as the official head neurologist for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association and all NHL players. He will also be available as a consultant for the entire U.S. Olympic team in cases of concussions or brain injuries.
He is believed to be the first full-time sports neurologist available on-site at the Olympics for U.S. athletes. This will be Kutcher's first trip to the Olympics, and Russia, and he's excited to help Team USA and experience the Games.
"I think I'm going to better understand what I am getting into when I get there," Kutcher said. "Being at the Olympics, working in those circumstances, they're all going to be new situations for me to experience. But I think my training and past experiences at Michigan and elsewhere have given me a strong level of preparation.
"Any time you are faced with a new set of challenges and circumstances that test your ability to make medical decisions, you enrich your skills as a sports physician. That's always a rewarding experience."
Kutcher usually practices medicine in his NeuroSport clinic at Domino's Farms or by being on-scene at Michigan football games or other athletic events/practices. He's a renowned expert on concussions, helping create the assessment protocols used by medical and sports training staffs around the world.
"Michigan Athletics is fortunate and proud to have Dr. Jeff Kutcher working with our student-athletes, coaches and athletic trainers to promote improved methods and practices for the prevention, detection and treatment of head and neck injuries," said Dave Brandon, the Donald R. Shepherd Director of Athletics. "It is not surprising that he has been selected to provide the same knowledge and experience to the elite athletes who will represent our country in the upcoming Winter Olympics."
Handling the heightened pressure of the Olympics, where athletes may have trained an entire lifetime for a single shot at a medal, brings its own challenges. Kutcher is prepared to make crucial medical determinations for the health and safety of an athlete, and not overlook a concussion or head injury in favor of the glory of an Olympic medal.
"It's always about doing what's best for the patient in that instance, not letting emotion or stress enter into the picture," Kutcher said. "When you are responsible for the health and safety of an athlete, you cannot allow the athletic situation to cloud your medical judgment. I don't let the situation change what is medically right for my patient."
In Sochi, Kutcher will be asked to be a bit athletic himself, as treating the athletes on the slopes, terrains, and half-pipes may require him to be on skis. Kutcher, who grew up skiing during his childhood in Petoskey, Mich., and continues to avidly ski as an adult, is taking his gear to Sochi.
He's undergone training on how to perform medical assessments and triage on skis, as U.S. Ski and Snowboard brought in its medical staff to practice scenarios on the world-class ski runs at Beaver Creek, Colo., before the Olympics. They ran through how to treat serious injuries on the slopes, such as neck, head or back injuries, broken bones, and wounds causing blood loss.
Kutcher said he was challenged, learning how to think on his skis. Getting to an injured skier quickly, but safely, tested his own skills on the slopes. He also learned important tricks, such as how to dig into the steep and icy runs with his ski boots for leverage while attending to an injured athlete.
"This emphasis becomes how to make it safe for the injured athletes and the providers of care," Kutcher said. "It's learning how to not make things worse and being able to control your own safety too."
Kutcher, who also grew up playing hockey, has always been a fan of the Olympics. His favorite Olympic memory is the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" game, when the upstart American men's hockey team defeated the heavily favored Russians, 4-3, in the semifinals of the Lake Placid Olympics. The U.S. team went on to win the gold medal and become part of the canon of Olympic legends.
Kutcher, who was a 12-year-old playing in an international tournament in Quebec, remembers watching the game with the French-Canadian family that was hosting him.
"It was the Olympics and hockey, which I love, so it couldn't get better than that," Kutcher said. "That was just so big to me to see that. I still remember it clearly."
He hopes to take in some of the Olympics while he is in Sochi, seeing other sports such as curling and taking in the atmosphere of one of the world's biggest sporting events.
"I'm looking forward to it all," Kutcher said. "It's going to be something new for me, and I like that a lot."