LAWRENCEVILLE - One is like driving a Ford Pinto while the other is akin to cruising in a top-of-the-line Bentley.
That's the analogy Dr. Mathew Pombo, a Gwinnett Medical Center orthopaedic surgeon, uses to describe the sports medicine program of yesteryear to the one offered in Gwinnett County nowadays.
"Technology has advanced so much when it comes to sports medicine ... to make things safer for kids," said Pombo, a former soccer player at Duluth High School. "This model in Gwinnett County is light years ahead of anywhere else ... it's a team approach."
Statistics would suggest that Pombo is right. According to the Georgia Hospital Association health planner database, GMC-Duluth is the state's leading provider for sports medicine surgeries. In 2008, nearly 1,200 procedures were performed at GMC-D - 259 more than the next-leading hospital, Memorial Health University Medical Center in Savannah.
But just what is sports medicine, exactly?
By definition, it's the study and practice of medical principles related to the science of sports. This includes the diagnoses of sports-related injuries (e.g. shin splints, concussions and broken bones), their treatment and prevention, and training and athletic performance issues such as nutrition, workouts and psychology.
Gwinnett Sports Medicine Committee Chairman Dr. Scott Maughon said the program's objective is simple.
"Our goal is covering kids," he said. "Simple as that. To put a doctor on every sideline every Friday night."
Currently, Gwinnett Medical Center serves nine county high schools full time, and, while football has always been a focus, Maughon said services are available to any athlete who needs them.
The program's infrastructure is made up of orthopaedic surgeons, primary care physicians, physical therapists and certified athletic trainers, or ATCs. Each serves a different function but share the common goal of keeping high school athletes healthy and safe.
Whether it's monitoring an athlete's weight and water intake during an August practice, making sure he or she is properly taped for competition or correcting and rehabbing an injury, someone in the program has the know-how to get it done.
Before Maughon was a surgeon, he was a three-sport athlete at Atlanta's Lakeside High School and a baseball player at the University of Georgia.
Before that, even, he was the son of a heart surgeon looking to follow in his father's footsteps. This vision, coupled with a visit in 1969 from sports medicine pioneer Dr. Fred Allman, led 10-year-old Maughon to set his sights on an orthopaedic career.
During his senior year at UGA, Maughon said he suffered an elbow injury such that no one in the Atlanta area could help.
"I made it a point then to give back," he said.
After medical school, a residency and a fellowship at the famous Alabama Sports Medicine Institute, Maughon returned home to start The Sports Medicine and Orthopaedic Institute of Gwinnett.
Sports medicine programs and services were being offered at the time, he said, but Maughon had grand ideas. Ideas of every high schooler in the county having access to top-notch medical care.
"Dr. (James) Andrews' (another internationally known sports medicine doctor) No. 1 thing was accessibility; be available," Maughon said.
With 14 orthopaedic surgeons, two primary care physicians and a slew of certified trainers and therapists on the job, that's exactly what Maughon and his team are trying to be.
Should the need arise, Maughon said more doctors are ready to step up to the plate. Tim Simmons, GMC's athletic training services coordinator, said his staff has gone from three ATCs in 2006 to 11 full-timers and nine part-timers today.
"And we hope to one day have 30, which is a full staff for us," Simmons said.
Commitment to service
At the high schools covered by Gwinnett's program, an ATC is on-hand to work with coaches and athletes from 1 p.m. until the end of the athletic training day. On Friday nights, there is a doctor on the sidelines - in addition to emergency medical personnel - just in case.
Maughon would like to service every high school in the county, "not just the money schools," and cover every athlete in Gwinnett. That's his vision, but not necessarily his choice.
"We will offer to help them if they don't have doctors or athletic trainers," Maughon said. "We always inquire, but never step on toes."
Pombo, the head physician at Shiloh High School, brings extensive experience with collegiate and professional sports teams to the table in his capacity as the ImPACT (Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Test) director.
ImPACT is a concussion management program used by all professional sports leagues to determine when an athlete has suffered a concussion and when it is safe for that athlete to return to competition.
That same technology is available to Gwinnett's contact sport athletes, such as football and soccer players.
Maughon said this is important because kids nursing concussions often don't belong in the classroom, let alone on a playing field.
Gwinnett's sports medicine program benefits junior athletes, like the ones in the Gwinnett Football League, high schoolers and the Gladiators and G-Braves professional teams.
Everyone in the county benefits, but Maughon, a self-described kid-at-heart sports enthusiast - believes it all starts with the youngsters.
"It's not about money or politics or anything else, it's about the kids," he said. "It's about doing the right thing and people will notice. Everything else will fall into place.
"We have a lot of quality people here who are working to make it a better county."
SideBar: Did You Know?
A program called "Friday Night Lights" allows a team physician to simply sign a "doctor's note" for an injured athlete, who can then take that note to GMC's emergency room and be fast-tracked to X-Ray.
The hospital has donated - and continues to donate - thousands of dollars worth of medical equipment to affiliated high schools to help keep cutting-edge technology readily available.
Annual symposiums are conducted to help educate students about careers in athletic training and physical therapy.
GMC provides ImPACT services county-wide, the only hospital in Georgia to do so. And at no charge.
As a convenience, GMC also, for a nominal fee, will provide required physicals for high school athletes.