Keeping His Patients En Pointe Dr. Freddie Fu and His Staff Have Been Attending to Pittsburgh Ballet Dancers for 30 Seasons, Spearheading a Sports Medicine Program That Gives the Artists the Same Attention to Their Health and Wellness That the City's Other Top Athletes Receive

By Vranish, Jane | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), December 2, 2013 | Go to article overview

Keeping His Patients En Pointe Dr. Freddie Fu and His Staff Have Been Attending to Pittsburgh Ballet Dancers for 30 Seasons, Spearheading a Sports Medicine Program That Gives the Artists the Same Attention to Their Health and Wellness That the City's Other Top Athletes Receive


Vranish, Jane, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


In 1983 the leading soloist crumpled to the floor in the midst of a Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre performance at the Benedum Center. As the other dancers continued to swirl in George Balanchine's "Square Dance" all around her, she made several efforts to stand, but couldn't. The audience held its collective breath. Only after several tries was she able to get up and hop into the wings on one leg. Shari Little had torn her Achilles tendon, a devastating injury for most dancers. The other performers finished the ballet without her -- a real-life scenario reminiscent of the movie "The Red Shoes."

The dancer was quickly whisked to the hospital in an ambulance. When she arrived and the doors opened, orthopedic surgeon Freddie Fu, who had just finished in the operating room, was there to greet her.

The dancer went on to perform some of her best roles after the surgery. Its success is credited to the speed of the operation, which was within minutes of the injury, so that the muscle did not curl up into the calf. She graduated to a principal position at PBT and then went on to become a soloist at Miami City Ballet, where she retired at age 36. Now she teaches classes in the Miami area and is a highly respected massage therapist, handling clients such as the Pittsburgh Steelers' Antonio Brown.

Ms. Little was one of Dr. Fu's early successes. While he was a pioneer in the emerging area of sports medicine, he quickly embraced the connection and singular importance of dance as well. He realized that it was an art form that didn't have the financial wherewithal to care for artists who often just had to dance "hurt," grinning and bearing it for the audience, or simply quit.

There was no middle ground.

A dance doctor

Orthopedic specialist Albert Ferguson was a guiding force for the young Dr. Fu, a Hong Kong native and Dartmouth graduate, a college where he was encouraged to attend medical school at the University of Pittsburgh by Jim Strickler, dean of Dartmouth Medical School and a Pittsburgh native. Dr. Ferguson, who monitored injuries at the Pittsburgh Pirates and at PBT, urged Dr. Fu to take over the care of the ballet company.

That was in 1983. Dr. Fu has been attending to the dancers ever since, physically, mentally and emotionally.

"It's artistic, it's athletic and I really enjoy the performances," he says. "Dancers are so proficient -- you need to be aware of your surroundings."

Sports medicine was in its infancy, and dance medicine was virtually non-existent, even though New York physician James Nicholas, best known for operating on Jets quarterback Joe Namath, had published a 1975 study in the Journal of Sports Medicine that examined 61 different physical activities. Ballet was named the most demanding, followed by bullfighting and football.

Dr. Fu took a break recently, sitting in his sunlit corner office at the UPMC Sports Medicine Center on the South Side, more than ready to talk about his own 30-year career in dance (medicine).

In his early 30s when he established the first UPMC sports medicine clinic in Oakland at the Iroquois Building, it quickly outgrew the space and made the move to Baum Boulevard and North Craig Street. From the start, he built a relationship with PBT.

He would take the elevator up to the dance company's old studios on Wood Street, a part of what was then called Point Park College. He visited the studios every week and would attend virtually every performance. But by the time executive director Loti Falk donated PBT's current building in the Strip District, Dr. Fu had expanded the medical staff, including specialists in nutrition, psychology and chiropractic.

He went on to conduct a full-day dance symposium at the new studios in 1985, bringing in specialists from all over the United States, including William Hamilton, the orthopedist who is still associated with New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. Dr. Fu also became heavily involved with the sprung floor that was installed at the new Benedum Center in the late '80s, contacting iconic high performance floor designer Joseph Seals, a move that would greatly reduce dancers' injuries. …

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