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Brandon Bockewitz strives to keep patients on the ice as Peoria Rivermen's team doctor

Brandon Bockewitz.jpg
Joe Deacon
Dr. Brandon Bockewitz, a family physician with UnityPoint Health, has served as the team doctor for the Peoria Rivermen hockey team for the past eight seasons years.

Dr. Brandon Bockewitz is not just a typical family medicine physician with UnityPoint Health.

Bockewitz has treated more than the normal share of patients who have been injured falling on ice, cut by sharp metal, struck in the face with hard objects, or gotten into physical altercations.

That’s right. Bockewitz is the team doctor for the Peoria Rivermen hockey team, a role he’s held for the past eight years – although COVID-19 kept the team from participating in the 2020-21 Southern Professional Hockey League season.

Reporter Joe Deacon recently spoke with Bockewitz about the challenges of treating professional athletes, and how COVID-19 has changed the way medical care for sports teams is handled.

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

How did you get to be the team doctor? What interested you in sports medicine? Have you been a team doctor for other teams in other sports as well?

Dr. Brandon Bockewitz: So, by primary training I'm a family medicine physician, like a lot of other PCPs (primary care physicians) here in the area. But I always had that special interest in sports and athletes; I grew up playing sports in high school, you know, intermurals through college, stuff like that, and that just kind of always stuck with me. So after I did my family medicine training, I went back and did an extra year of training in specific sports medicine, non-surgical orthopedics, and have been doing it ever since. So I've been back with UnityPoint and I've been here for 10 years doing sports medicine as part of my regular practice.

So about eight years ago, the Rivermen team kind of went through a little transition where they were bought out and moved and relocated, and there was that question of, “Are we ever going to have Peoria hockey here again?” When the team got resettled and hired their athletic trainer, I knew her and had worked with her for other events. She kind of got me involved and drug me in and said, “Hey, look, we need somebody that can do the family medicine side of things” – the sports medicine side, the non-surgical orthopedics. And that's kind of how it got started.

How has COVID-19 affected treating sports teams right now?

Dr. Brandon Bockewitz: It's kind of turned our world upside down. It's made us a lot more cautious. A lot of things that would be considered normal day-to-day stuff that we wouldn't think a whole lot about, you know: How close can we sit these guys together? Where are they at on the bench? Where are we putting the opposing team? What are we doing for the officials? All those things just have a different perspective on them now, and what is the safest thing for everybody to be doing? It's made us look at kind of our routine treatments and protocols and revise them for just this new pandemic world that we live in.

From a general day-to-day treatment, we're still doing the same stuff that we always do. If we’ve got a guy who needs something, we're going to get him in, we're going to get him seen. Just like we tell all of our other patients, if something's going on, don't delay care just because we're in the middle of a pandemic here. We’ve figured out how to keep people safe, but also get them the care that they need.

We've heard about a lot of like national sports figures, such as Aaron Rodgers not getting vaccinated and testing positive. What is the vaccination policy or the testing policies as far as the SPHL and the Rivermen are concerned?

Dr. Brandon Bockewitz: So, the testing policy for us here in Peoria has kind of been just based on the symptomatic care: Have there been exposures, or is somebody experiencing symptoms that we think could be related to COVID? I've seen a number of guys this year already with the upper respiratory stuff, and one of the first things we're doing is just trying to get those guys away from everybody else, getting a test, let's see if this is COVID, or something else that could be not COVID related. As much as COVID is in the press, influenza and all those just fun regular respiratory viruses are still out there. We've just been really good at keeping them a bay with good hand washing and all these fun masks that everybody loves wearing around.

In terms of the SPHL, I'm not 100% sure on exactly what their policies are. I believe, in talking to our current athletic trainer at the beginning of the year, the policy was somewhere along the lines of: as long as you're vaccinated, then we're not going to require mandated testing on a weekly basis. And then if anybody were to get COVID or complications associated with it, that it would be considered part of the hockey insurance and they would be covered for it.

So you don't have any idea of how many of the players are vaccinated or not or anything like that?

Dr. Brandon Bockewitz: Coming through, that was one of the things we looked at during their physicals when they first got to Peoria, and I think out of the 20 guys that I saw for our entrance training camp, there was only one or two that had not been vaccinated at that point. Now, throughout the season as we've had guys come and go, that may have diluted the numbers a little bit. But here in Peoria we had a really good vaccination rate at the beginning of the season.

Hockey is kind of a bit of a violent sport, so that must keep you pretty busy then, right?

Dr. Brandon Bockewitz: It does, unfortunately – or fortunately for the fans. I'm about the only guy sitting in the seats that has a cringe on my face when guys start fighting and going at it with each other. But it is (violent). We've had some just normal injuries over the years where guys get in fights, and we've got busted open faces and broken noses and all sorts of fun stuff like that. A couple years ago, we had a little more serious injury where we had a guy out on the ice take a skate to the thigh and opened up his leg on the ice. So that was unfortunately a little more distressing. But it is a violent sport; these guys love what they're doing and they know it's going to be a little violent when they get out there.

What kind of injuries do you see most often? And what are some of the most severe ones you see?

Dr. Brandon Bockewitz: So game days, the biggest injuries we tend to see are the lacerations from either guys getting in fights, getting hit in the face with sticks, pucks, different flying objects on the ice. So that's kind of the game day one. The outside of game day in the training room is kind of the average just musculoskeletal injuries: sprains, strains, this is sore, this hurts.

Fortunately, in hockey, we don't see as many of the really big, bad ACL injuries or knee tears and sprains, things like that, which is very fortunate for those guys – a lot of upper extremity injuries, shoulder dislocations. Then me being on also the family med side of it, I see the routine winter stuff: guys coming in with colds and sore throats, because most of them are not native to Peoria or even Illinois. They don't have that regular doctor that they can just call and get in and be seen. So I get to play that role as well, and evaluating the skin rashes, the sore throats, the “I just don't feel well,” belly pain … different stuff like that.

What about concussions? I know that's been a hot topic over the past decade or so. I mean, do you see a lot of those in the sports that you treat athletes in?

Dr. Brandon Bockewitz: Concussion treatment, both on the ice with the Rivermen and even just general in the clinic, you're right – it's been a hot topic for the past five to 10 years. We're seeing new recommendations and treatments and guidelines all the time coming out for this stuff. So it is a big part of what we do; it's a big part of what I enjoy doing, because again, seeing these patients and kids and parents that are really, really worried about how serious this is. It’s just kind of giving them the peace of mind that, “Hey, look, this is all fixable. We'll get everybody back to and what they want to do,” and just kind of walking them through that process of what it looks like to get somebody back from a concussion.

We've got the lucky ones, that in 2-3 days they're good to go, and we've got, unfortunately, some of the not lucky ones where a month, two, or six down the road, they're still having pretty significant symptoms. But it is, it's definitely out there. Especially like we talked about with the violent sport that hockey is, with guys running into each other and equipment and things like that out there, we're seeing concussions on a regular basis and we're educating these guys to let us know when they're feeling like they took a bad hit, or they're just not right feeling themselves. The hardest part at this level, like we talked about, is these guys want to play, so trying to convince them that sometimes we do need to hold them out for their best interests and for the team's interest, sometimes that's a hard thing for us to do.

How does treating athletes differ from treating regular everyday people, if at all?

Dr. Brandon Bockewitz: Good question. They are regular people just like the rest of us; I don't care if it's at the major league level, the NBA level, the wherever you're looking at it, you know, they're still patients. Just because everybody watches them on TV or knows them by name, they still need and deserve the same care that we give everybody else. The hardest part about it is trying to balance how quickly can we get somebody back into the game or through rehab or through a broken bone, and back doing what we need them to do as part of the team.

We'll be able to put guys on the injured reserve list and keep them on IR for days, weeks, how many ever we need. But that's also then a missing piece of our team that we need back. So while most people would relish at the opportunity to have some days off work and to be sick for a little bit, these guys are really itching and clawing to get back out on the ice and doing what they want to do. So sometimes it's telling these guys that, “Hey, look, we just, we need to slow it down. We need to do the right stuff because we don't want you to get back out there and reinjure it and then you're down even longer.” And sometimes it's trying to convince the coach that we'll get them back as quick as we can. But we want to make sure that they're safe and able to do what they need to do.

Following up on that, I covered sports for nearly 20 years and what I've always seen of athletes is that they take extreme care of their bodies and they want to be able to perform at peak physical condition. So in some ways, they almost require that higher level of care. Do you see that as well?

Dr. Brandon Bockewitz: Yeah, we do. You know, these guys come into the season having worked out in the preseason and getting their bodies ready for what they know is going to be a long and grueling season for them. If you count preseason and playoffs, they're going at it for almost six months out of the year. And they do, when they get injuries, it's significant.

Getting them back to kind of a baseline level for the average population would be easy, but getting them above and beyond that, to the level where they came in or the level that they need to be at to be out there skating, as long as they are and work and adult as long as they are during the days and games and practices and just everything that they do. It does; it takes a lot of work to get them back to that level.

What are hockey players like as patients? Are they more difficult, or are they receptive to advice?

Dr. Brandon Bockewitz: I see it both ways. I've got guys that, the first season in, they're brand new. They don't know you; you don't know them. They may be new to the professional hockey arena, coming straight out of school or something like that. Sometimes it just takes getting that relationship and letting them know that you do have their best interest in mind, and you're going to back them up and do what you think is in their best interest.

Other guys, I've known for years. We've got some local Peoria guys skating on our team right now; they're from Peoria, and they've played in Peoria as long as I've been with the team. Those guys, I just I know them and we've got great relationships, and as much as they don't like it when I tell them, “hey, here certain things that we need to do,” they respect it and they're all on board. Because at the end of the day, we all want the same thing, man. We want these guys back out on the ice winning games and bringing trophies back to Peoria.

Do you travel with the team also, or are you just at the home games?

Dr. Brandon Bockewitz: I'm unfortunately just at the home games. My schedule between work here and then family life at home has just never really made it super convenient for me to be able to travel with the team. The first couple years when I was working with the first trainer who was there, I was very fortunate – I always got invited to the Pensacola trip, which was always seem to occur around spring break. But unfortunately, I could never make that one either.

So how does that work, then? Does the team rely on the other team’s team doctor when they're on the road? And similarly, do you help the other teams when they come here?

Dr. Brandon Bockewitz: Yeah, that's right. So generally, the home team will provide the medical coverage, and we are responsible for all the players, all the staff, everybody who comes basically on the bus to hang out with us for that weekend. So yes, I'm not only treating my players, but we're also treating the visiting team and anything that they would need for us as well.

What do you find to be the most interesting or rewarding aspect of being the team doctor for the Peoria Rivermen?

Dr. Brandon Bockewitz: The reason I like a lot of the stuff I do is it's just kind of that childhood fantasy of, “hey, I'm hanging out in a professional locker room,” and I get to hang out with these professional athletes that I know I can't be. We always have fun in high school playing sports and when you're younger, and then as we get older, we tend to lose some of that scheduled, organized sports stuff. So it's just awesome being a part of the team and being involved in these guys lives, just getting to know them other than just the guys that are out on the ice.

Then obviously, it's great being at the games – being able to walk in and know that you're going to have great seats, and you're going to be able to see everything you want and, and you can show up whenever you want and watch some great hockey here in Peoria. It's just a lot of getting to do what I've always loved and wanted to do, with the combination of just being involved with some of the local Peoria sports and culture.

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