Leeds medic on and off the pitch

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Leeds surgeon Anthony McWilliams spends his spare time as medic to the city’s top rugby clubs. Grace Hammond meets him.

When Anthony McWilliams is not looking after patients in his role as consultant orthopaedic surgeon at Spire Leeds Hospital, you will most likely find him on the touchline on Saturday afternoons as the official pitchside doctor for Yorkshire Carnegie/Leeds Rhinos.

With one in four rugby players likely to be injured during the season, the team can rest assured they are in good hands in the event of trauma injuries.

“Rugby injury rates are nearly three times higher than soccer,” says Anthony. “As it’s a fast moving and high intensity team sport the majority of the injuries occur in matches when players are tackling or being tackled and on average each player performs 20-40 tackles per match.”

For Anthony it’s a way of combining two elements he is passionate about – rugby and medicine. “It’s really interesting to go as the doctor and sit on the touchline and see the game. I’ve always found the insight that I get into the world of professional sport fascinating, being around international players and the organisation. There’s a ‘buzz’ from being on the pitchside for a big game or when someone spots me on television,” he says.

Anthony, who is married to Helen, a GP, and has three young children, started working with Yorkshire Carnegie/Leeds Rhinos and the academy in 2005. By 2010, when the union side reached the premiership, he began working with the senior team for both codes and his role developed to the point where he was covering around half the games both home and away.

Recently he was appointed to the medical faculty of the RFL which involves being part of the training staff for the pitchside medical course. As the only orthopaedic surgeon on the faculty his opinion is often sought with regards to orthopaedic medicine and trauma in the sport.

Anthony says the role of the pitchside doctor has evolved, most notably with regard to the management of concussion, and usually a couple of players a game need to come off the pitch for a head injury assessment.

“The most challenging aspect is to remain switched on and ready to deal immediately with a potential life-threatening injury. Head injuries and concussion management are probably the most challenging day-to-day issue. These are dealt with on a safety-first basis and critical decisions have to be made. If there is any concern at all the player is assessed and removed from play,” says Anthony.

A typical day for a home game starts when Anthony arrives a couple of hours before the game, bringing with him with standard medical equipment – routine non-emergency medicines, suture kits, etc. Before setting up in the medical room he checks with the physiotherapists to see if there are any concerns with individual players and if any are returning from an injury. After a briefing with the paramedics and dugout staff to go over emergency procedures, he also speaks to the opposition team’s doctor or physiotherapist to identify if any players have issues he needs to be aware of in an emergency.

During the game Anthony is usually on the touchline watching. “This can be a bit tricky as you have to train yourself not to watch the ball but to concentrate on the preceding sequence of play. I need to make sure the players that went into a tackle have got up and are OK. There are usually a few bumps and cuts that need to be dealt with. Major injury is fortunately rare but when it happens we have to be prepared to deal with it immediately. This is where the training kicks in,” he said.

Born in Leeds, Anthony grew up in Roundhay, close to Spire Leeds Hospital. His father was an orthopaedic surgeon in Leeds who inspired him to enter the world of medicine. Anthony studied medicine at the Royal Free Hospital Medical School in Hampstead, London.

“All I ever wanted to be was a doctor. It’s a decision that, even during some of the high pressure days at medical school, I have never regretted for a moment.”

He chose the field of orthopaedics as he enjoys the surgical, biomechanical and engineering aspects. “In particular, I chose to be a hip and knee joint replacement surgeon as they are two of the most successful medical interventions across all of the medical profession.”

Anthony, who used to play rugby at medical school and for a few years afterwards as loose head prop, gave up playing six years ago. “Officially, I am only technically taking a break from the game, the boots are still in the loft.”