September 2011

Back In The Lowcountry. Lowcountry Spine & Sport

Author: David Tobias | Photographer: John Brackett

The secret to success is simple: if an omen or oracle tells you to do something, pay attention. Then just take the hint and do what it says.

Dr. John Batson grew up on Hilton Head Island, learned to windsurf at South Beach, spent time kayaking in the marshes around Harbour Town and waterskiing in the Calibogue Sound, taught windsurfing for Outside Hilton Head, then took up kiteboarding for the sheer fun of it. His passion for the water and the Lowcountry has driven him in a circuitous path, landing him right back home four years ago to open Lowcountry Spine and Sport.

Batson’s early appreciation for ecology, encouraged by Outside Hilton Head, could have led him in a marine biology direction. Or he could have become a teacher, after heading to the University of Richmond, still with the sciences in mind. But it was a simple twist at the University of Richmond that caused a back injury, and, combined with an enduring love of the Lowcountry, convinced him he needed to be closer to the ocean.

He transferred to the College of Charleston and spent a year with spine and sports medicine doctors trying to figure out what was wrong with his back. It was that interaction and their willingness to share insights that ultimately pointed him toward medical school. His own back problem, it turned out, had led him to explore spine and sports medicine as a specialty. In retrospect, it all looks so easy and so clear.

Of course nothing is really all that clear. At the ripe old age of 11, Batson was dropped off at South Beach by his mother, another in a series of efforts aimed at getting him involved with some sort of sport he could do on his own. He says his success in more traditional sports had been limited, to say the least, and he recalls thinking this would be more of the same.

“She left me there crying, as I recall,” he said, remembering his first day at windsurfing day camp. “But it turned out to be a life-changing positive experience.” By the age of 13 he was teaching windsurfing. Throughout college, his travel was tied to windsurfing competitions, until the injury, which was debilitating.

“They couldn’t find anything, which was very frustrating—everything looked normal,” Batson said of attempts to diagnose the problem. “I was just plagued for a year with back pain. Looking back on it now, I probably had a stress fracture, but that was tough to diagnose at the time.”

Returning home, Batson checked in with Dr. Ralph Salzer, of Beaufort, an orthopedic surgeon, specializing in sports medicine, who, he says, got him on track with proper stretching and strengthening of core muscles—an epiphany of sorts and another sign.

“I remember clearly walking out of his office ; he had one of those Lowcountry house kind of offices,” Batson said, “and as I stepped out onto his front porch I looked out, took a deep breath and thought, ‘Yeah, this is what I want to do.’ And from there, I went down the med school path.”

That path meandered through the University of South Carolina’s school of medicine, a residency in Greenville, then back to the University of South Carolina for a sports medicine fellowship, working with team doctors for USC sports teams. He met his wife Alice while in Columbia, where she was a personal trainer at one of the popular fitness centers.

He could have continued working in Columbia, picking up all the experience he needed to apply for board certification, but chose instead to enroll in an accreditation program associated with Baltimore’s Mount Sinai Hospital. Between the sports at USC and the Mount Sinai program, he learned the details of the muscular-skeletal system along with casting, bracing, nutrition, the benefits of exercise, interventional procedures (such as arthritis injections), discography and how to examine a patient.

He completed the accreditation, added a bunch of letters behind his MD (FACSP, to be precise), certifying him as a Fellow in the American College of Sports Medicine. But what still hung around was the persistent and clear knowledge that he had to get back to the beach.

That was accomplished four years ago when Batson opened the Lowcountry Spine and Sport office, across the road from Sun City, just off Highway 278 in what is technically Hardeeville. He says it’s the perfect location for the services his office provides—most commonly treating degenerative spine disease, which might take the form of arthritis of the spine, disc problems and irritated nerves.

He says he sees three different types of patients. First are those in an age group 55 and above, who have had the good fortune to be active in sports like golf, tennis, running and cycling most of their lives and don’t want to slow down.

He also sees high school and college age patients, most with disc-related injuries, similar to his own, which have become much more easily diagnosed.

And finally he sees those with herniated discs who may have pushed their good health too far. Most of those, he says, are in their 30s and 40s, coming in with sciatica and some pain.

“Every one of those is going to be just as mad that they can’t do their activities,” Batson said. “With the younger athlete, I’m getting calls from the athletic trainer when they’re on the sidelines asking when they can tell the coach they’re ready to get back in the game; I’ve got the coaches themselves asking me when he or she is going to be ready to go back into the game, and then mom and dad are asking me the same question. And that’s before the athletes themselves are asking me.

“The middle-aged guy just wants to get back to his tennis game, back to work, back to playing with his kids and the same holds for the older crowd,” Batson said.

Through it all, one very distinctly Hilton Head Island and Lowcountry kind of athlete predominates when it comes to back injuries and issues, and that is the golfer.

“We joke that golf keeps us in business,” Batson said. “If you watch the PGA and collegiate golf, the number one thing they’re treated for is back problems. It’s a big stress on the back, and on top of that, the typical golfer tends to be tall with a tight musculature. You examine their hamstrings and hip flexors, and they’re just very tight. So, it’s a big shift to get them to incorporate stretch into their routine.”

Batson is all about flex. Now that he has returned to Hilton Head Island and the Lowcountry, incorporating the things he loves around the routine of his spinal and sports medicine specialty is what makes his circuitous route back home especially worthwhile.

While the medical practice involves all the various aspects of an orthopedic specialty, physical therapy and pain management and has grown to be successful with an increased patient base both in Hardeeville and on Hilton Head Island (where a satellite office is open every other Thursday), much of Batson’s time not devoted to patient care is still spent windsurfing and kiteboarding.

“Late in the day, as we’re wrapping things up, well after the last patient has gone, I’m looking out the window and checking the treetops for wind,” Batson said. “If there’s a little wind, you can bet I’ll be kiteboarding, and if there’s a steady breeze you’ll find me windsurfing still.”

It was a back injury omen a dozen plus or so years ago that led Batson to seek a pain solution and a way home to the Lowcountry. He’s not looking for any more omens, having found his way home on that circular path.

But if one shows up, he’ll definitely pay attention.

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