During a 40-year career in orthopaedics, VCU Sports Medicine Clinic founding medical director Thomas Loughran, M’77, H’82, patched up players and trained the next generation of physicians.
June 5, 2023
In 2011, when the VCU men’s basketball team made its storybook ascent to the NCAA Final Four, the athletes became household names.
But, unknown to the millions watching, on the sidelines sat one orthopaedic surgeon and School of Medicine alumnus who’d contributed mightily to the team’s success. Thomas Loughran, M’77, H’82, had repaired the injuries of many student-athletes over the years, including those on the court.
Beside him was his mentee turned colleague, Seth Cheatham, M.D., H’08, who would eventually take over Loughran’s duties as medical director for VCU Athletics.
“That was such a great experience for me professionally,” Cheatham says. “It’s still by far and away the highlight of my career – to be there with Tom at the Final Four.”
Cheatham trained under Loughran, as did hundreds of other surgeons who’ve gone on to successful careers in sports medicine. Loughran fostered a family atmosphere among his residents that few forget. And they’ve extended his influence across the country, a team of physicians educated in a hands-on style, committed to their patients’ outcomes.
“He is still the only orthopaedic surgeon I know who would personally call every patient that he operated on to see if they were doing OK,” Cheatham says. “He did so many things the right way.”
On the forefront of an emerging specialty
Arriving on the MCV Campus in the early 1970s, medical student Loughran was influenced by John Cardea, M.D., H’73, the chief of orthopaedics at the time, and Gerardo Mendez-Picon, M.D., H’74, a vascular surgeon.
“I enjoyed surgery and that’s the reason I gravitated toward him,” Loughran says of Mendez-Picon. “And Dr. Cardea introduced me to orthopaedics – ultimately I went into that because of him.”
After medical school, Loughran completed his internship at the University of Florida, returned to Richmond for his orthopaedics residency and completed a yearlong sports medicine fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania, working with Joseph Torg, M.D. He then came back to the MCV Campus to work with Cardea and Robert Adelaar, M.D., in the orthopaedics program, which at the time was housed under surgery.
“Starting out, we didn’t have our own department,” Loughran says. “Dr. Cardea formed it. We all had to pitch in to do that.”
Loughran, who had witnessed various injuries when he played basketball in high school and as a college freshman, knew that orthopaedics would be a fascinating field. He shifted his focus to sports medicine as the specialty began to blossom.
“If you like sports and you like dealing with motivated people who want to get better, it’s a great job,” he says. “That’s one of the things that attracted me to it. And Dr. Cardea and Dr. Adelaar always supported me.”
In the mid-1980s, as the only sports medicine physician in the orthopaedic department, Loughran’s hectic schedule included treating patients and taking care of athletes for several local high schools, as well as VCU, Virginia Union University, Virginia State University and Richmond’s minor league baseball team.
“A lot of times, I would be at a football game, then a soccer match and then a baseball game all in one day,” he says. “It was a lot of hours out of the hospital, but it was a lot of fun at the same time.”
Thousands of patients have come through the clinic doors — first at Franklin Street Gym and then, in 2001, at the new VCU Sports Medicine Clinic. Injuries ranged from ankles to knees to hips to shoulders to necks. Loughran recalls three Virginia Union football players who each suffered a knee dislocation.
“We operated and they came back to playing football,” he says. “That was always a big thing for us to try and get them back.”
Loughran’s skills took him all over the world, where he lectured about sports medicine in Zimbabwe, Scotland, Ukraine and Guatemala. He also served as team doctor for events such as the Goodwill Games in St. Petersburg, Russia.
“It was nice to see how sports medicine people worked all over the world,” he said. “That’s one of the things about orthopaedics, you learn something new every day if you want to. It’s always evolving.”
In addition to his other duties, Loughran continued to educate residents. He calls it “the best part of the job.”
After his retirement from the medical school’s full-time faculty in February 2022, Loughran joined the Richmond VA Medical Center, where he now works a “lighter” four-day-a-week schedule. “I still get to work with the residents and I like taking care of the veterans,” he says. “It’s a good way to use my expertise and take care of people.”
'Always present and patient’
Making orthopaedics a more inclusive team
Roughly 15% of orthopaedic residents are women and just 6% of women surgeons practice orthopaedics.
Nancy Yen Shipley, M.D., H’10, F’11, often wondered about other professions in which women were underrepresented and how interesting it would be to compare notes with them.
In 2020, with her elective surgeries halted due to COVID-19 lockdown, she began researching how to create a podcast. She cold-called a wish list of women in male-dominated fields and to her surprise, they all agreed to talk to her. Her podcast, “The 6% with NancyMD,” was born and is now in its fourth season.
“The podcast and social media connected me with others who were like-minded in terms of wanting to make our culture better in orthopaedics,” Yen Shipley says.
Those connections resulted in her and several other female orthopaedic surgeons founding Speak Up Ortho, a nonprofit geared to raising awareness of bias, inequities and harassment within orthopaedic surgery.
In just two years, the organization is making an impact. Members have published articles in several academic journals, been featured on numerous podcasts and enlisted the board of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons to include anti-harassment and anti-bullying questions in the orthopaedics recertification test.
“That has been a really big passion project of mine,” she says. “We still have so much work to do, but it feels good to be making these tangible steps.”
One product of the orthopaedic residency’s grueling 80-hour work weeks and uncommon camaraderie is Stephen Sims, M.D., H’89, who initially thought he wanted to be a cardiac surgeon. But after two years, he had a change of heart and switched specialties.
“We worked really, really hard and when we weren’t working we were hanging out with each other,” Sims says. “We had a good time. It was a collegial group. I will always feel very close to that group of people forever.”
He’s now a trauma orthopaedic surgeon at Atrium Health Orthopaedics Surgery in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he treats patients who have suffered injuries in high-energy accidents such as car and motorcycle crashes.
“We see people at their very worst, and it’s nice to watch as they progress through that process and get better,” he says.
Sims remembers the sports medicine rotation with Loughran being a favorite among the residents because of his teaching expertise.
“He was always present and patient,” Sims says. “And watching people do arthroscopy is something you have to be really patient to be able to tolerate.”
Sims says the residents considered Loughran a friend who could be counted on to assist them if they had a question about a case.
“We always knew we could call him,” he says. “He would always respond. He would do whatever he needed to do to help to get us through a tough situation.”
Indeed, Loughran’s assistance extended beyond the OR. When Sims sold his house in Richmond and needed a place to stay, Loughran offered him a room in his home for the remainder of his residency.
But it was Loughran’s manner with patients that made a lasting impression on Sims and is a skill he models in his own practice.
“He would spend a lot of time with his patients and he was a really good listener,” Sims says.
“He was tireless, but he never was in a hurry. He had a nice, calm, deliberate pace and was never flustered or frustrated.
“He’s made a big impact on a whole generation of orthopaedic surgeons.”
‘A joy to be in his OR’
Nancy Yen Shipley, M.D., H’10, F’11, likens her orthopaedic residency experience to drinking from a fire hose.
“You’re just trying to take in all this information and learn not just the academic piece but also how to use your hands and efficiency of motion,” she says. “All of these things that make up a good surgeon.”
Yen Shipley especially appreciated training with Loughran, who introduced her to arthroscopy.
“It was a joy to be in his OR,” she says. “Even as a younger resident, he always made sure we would get our hands in there for at least part of the case. He was a great teacher.”
During residency, Yen Shipley leaned on her peers for support.
“You form a really close bond because you’re going through training that is mentally and physically rigorous and demanding,” she says. “To this day, some of my best friends in life are from that residency.”
Yen Shipley is now a partner at Multnomah Orthopedic Clinic in Portland, Oregon, where she focuses on repairing shoulders and knees. She serves as a physician for U.S. Ski & Snowboard and is also an in-demand motivational speaker for medical and nonmedical audiences.
She devotes her spare time to improving diversity, equity, inclusion and anti-harassment within orthopaedics as well.
“In general, I had a very positive experience going through school and training, but it wasn’t lost on me that I was in the minority,” she says.
‘The answer was always yes’
Cheatham, now the VCU Athletics medical director, twice moved to Richmond on the strength of the orthopaedics program at VCU.
“It’s a residency that really prepares you to go out in the world and be an extremely competent orthopaedic surgeon,” he says.
Clearly, Loughran stood out as one of the program’s premier educators, taking time to guide residents and help them improve their skills.
Loughran’s bedside manner was legendary as well. If he was running behind while seeing patients, they never seemed to mind because he spent quality time with each one, Cheatham says.
After residency, Cheatham completed a fellowship in Kentucky before returning to the VCU Sports Medicine Clinic. The transition from Loughran’s former resident to colleague was seamless.
“Tom was always so welcoming,” Cheatham says. “And he and I complemented each other very well.”
They shared clinical responsibilities as well as the demanding work of taking care of athletes on local high school and college sports teams. It was Loughran who suggested Cheatham travel with the VCU men’s basketball team in 2011, his first chance to do so. Cheatham cleared his schedule and went along for the ride.
Over the years, Loughran began to step back. More of the responsibilities of the VCU Sports Medicine Clinic fell to Cheatham, who tries to emulate his mentor’s dedication and willingness to do anything for anybody.
“If somebody had a problem and needed to be seen, the answer was always yes,” Cheatham says. “It doesn’t matter how busy you think you are. You always make time for the people who reach out and need you.”