Pittsburgher of the Year: Dr. Freddie Fu
With his boundless energy and spirited optimism, Dr. Freddie Fu built a world-class sports medicine program that turned Pittsburgh into a go-to international destination not only for surgeons, athletic trainers and physical therapists, but for many of the world’s best banged-up athletes.
Dr. Freddie Fu
The young doctors training under Dr. Freddie Fu at UPMC’s Sports Medicine Program knew the brilliant knee surgeon would push them to new limits. But Dr. James Romanowski never expected to end up in a cage with a Kodiak bear named Sarah.
It was a fall day in 2008 when Romanowski received an urgent phone call from Fu from the parking lot.
“Come down here,” said the doctor who was famous around the world for repairing the damaged knees of star athletes. “We need you now.”
Not until Romanowski was inside Fu’s silver Audi did he find out they were speeding to the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium to see an injured bear. Fu was buzzing with excitement at the prospect of examining another species’ anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) — the same structure in the human knee that had made him an orthopaedic superstar.
But Romanowski, a fellow in the sports medicine program, was preoccupied with something more basic — his own mortality.
What about a vet? Are we crazy? How did I get myself into this situation?
But you don’t say no to Fu. Standing outside the holding cage where the anesthetized bear was lying, Romanowski asked, “What if she wakes up?”
“It’s OK,” said Fu, nudging him to go in first and guiding him through the exam.
For the next 20 minutes, the two doctors examined the grizzly and took X-rays that revealed arthritis. Romanowski never fully relaxed. But Fu was too jazzed to worry, exclaiming excitedly every time Romanowski maneuvered the bear’s leg.
Showcasing his driving curiosity and trademark wit, Fu later used the video from that day at the zoo as part of a presentation on the ACL he gave worldwide.
Romanowski, now a surgeon in Charlotte, North Carolina, will never forget that medical adventure with a bear or the impact that Fu’s mentorship — and long friendship — made on him and his career.
“He demanded so much from everyone around him,” Romanowski says. “He would make you uncomfortable but never in a mean way. It was in a way that would make you grow. I am a much better doctor having trained with him.”
Romanowski’s fond memories of his mentor were echoed by dozens of sports medicine surgeons around the world in the wake of Fu’s death from metastatic melanoma on Sept. 24, 2021. He was 70.
His loss has created a huge and irreplaceable void in the field of sports medicine and in his adopted city, where he has been named Pittsburgh Magazine’s 2021 Pittsburgher of the Year.
Pittsburgh Magazine in 1999 also named Fu one of the 100 most influential Pittsburghers of the 20th century.
Freddie, as everyone called the man despite his long list of professional titles, did more than merely create the sports medicine program in 1986. He also turned the city into an international destination for surgeons, doctors, athletic trainers and physical therapists who sought cutting-edge training.
By attracting top-tier surgeons, Fu made Pittsburgh a go-to destination for many of the world’s best banged-up athletes — caring for stars from the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Andrew McCutchen to Swedish soccer superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic. But he also had time to repair the torn tendons and injured joints of coal miners, construction workers, weekend warriors, high school athletes and college jocks.
No matter their athletic pedigree, he made every one of them feel like a VIP.
“Even though he’s talking a mile a minute and running around and multitasking, he made everyone feel like they were the only one in the room,” says Dr. Robin West, who worked with Fu at UPMC for 11 years before becoming chairman of Inova Sports Medicine in Fairfax, Va.
“He made all his patients feel like they were professional athletes.”
For some of his former patients, the unexpected death of Fu was wrenching, like the death of a favorite uncle. He’s the guy who stitched their bodies back together, getting them back on the court or ballfield after an injury and then sticking with them for decades.
“I know they named a medical center,” the UPMC Freddie Fu Sports Medicine Center, “after this guy,” says Anthony “Goose” Siragusa, the star defensive tackle for University of Pittsburgh in the late 1980s who played 12 years in the NFL. “But they should name the whole city after him. He was such a loyal guy. He said, ‘I am going to make Pittsburgh my home and make it a better place.’ He brought so much good attention to the city.”
‘Magician in the Operating Room’
In 1984, Freddie Fu didn’t introduce himself when he walked up to Charles Smith on the court of the Pitt Field House. He merely asked the towering Pitt freshman to shoot baskets with him. Smith was surprised, but said OK.
A week later, Fu asked Smith to play a one-on-one game.
Who is this dude? Smith thought.
After all, Smith was 19 years old, 6-foot-10 and NBA material. Fu was 34, more than a foot shorter and sure didn’t look like a prospect for what would become one of Pitt’s greatest basketball teams.
Smith chuckled and agreed to play, but, as he recently recalls, “Freddie wasn’t laughing. He was serious. Freddie was a scrapper. He would hustle on the court.”
After their game, Fu introduced himself as the team doctor for Pitt Athletics. The next season, when Smith’s shoulder kept coming out of its socket, he talked to Fu about surgery. Like any gifted athlete, he was worried the injury might spell the end of his career. But Fu explained in great detail the procedure to repair his shoulder by using tissue from a cadaver.
In the early 1990s, when Smith hurt his knee playing for the Los Angeles Clippers, he secretly returned to Pittsburgh for surgery by Fu and got back on the court — as good as new. Throughout his NBA career, Smith would call Fu for advice — medical advice, sure, but also for life lessons.
Fu shared with Smith some of his own basketball glory back in Hong Kong during the early 1960s. Freddie, the fourth of five kids and always interested in athletics, was the captain of the basketball team at his Christian high school.
Going into the championship game, his team was the underdog against a school that had won for seven years straight. With 2 minutes left, the score was tied, but Freddie’s team won, 76-72.
A natural showman whose flamboyant fashion sense surfaced early, Fu played lead guitar in a rock group as a teen. After he fell in love with the singer and guitar player of another band, Hilda Pang, he showed up at her school wearing bright red patterned shorts.
As recounted by their daughter, Joyce Lok-See Fu, who lives in Manhattan, Hilda told Fu, “No boy in Hong Kong wears something like that.” But Freddie won her over. He and Hilda were together as husband and wife for 47 years.
Since it was harder to get into Hong Kong University in the 1960s than it was to get into Harvard, Fu immigrated to the United States to attend Dartmouth College. Studying biology as an undergrad, he went to Dartmouth’s two-year medical school.
Many Dartmouth medical students would then transfer to Harvard Medical School for their final two years, but one of Fu’s advisors recommended that he go to Pittsburgh and study under Dr. Albert Ferguson.
While Ferguson gave Fu every opportunity, Dr. West, his protege and friend, says he sometimes got pushback from surgeons outside the city at first. “He felt that he was not given the same opportunities with regional and national orthopaedic and sports organizations due to his heritage. The vast majority of orthopaedic surgeons were, and still are, white males.”
West believes that those early experiences motivated Fu to give women like herself and minorities a chance, building one of the most diverse orthopaedic surgery departments in the country.
Despite early obstacles, Fu quickly distinguished himself at UPMC. “He was a magician in the operating room,” says Dr. Joseph Maroon, a neurosurgeon at UPMC and neurological consultant for the Steelers.
Charismatic and irrepressible, defying the stereotype of a surgeon as an aloof, white alpha male, Fu was as fast as he was skilled, performing 10 or 12 surgeries a day. To save time between operations, he would mop the floor and clean up himself, instead of waiting for housekeeping.
And his care didn’t stop after surgery. “He believed you take care of the whole patient. You’re not just a surgeon,” says West, now the lead team physician for the Washington Nationals.
Fu’s sports medicine center at Pitt became one-stop shopping, integrating everything from physical therapy to training to sports psychology. He also added concussion treatment into the program after Maroon approached him about creating a computer-based test for traumatic head injuries.
Fu also went to great lengths to understand the knee and how to repair it. That quest prompted him to examine fossilized leg bones, track down models of early hominids and visit the zoo to do surgery on a mandrill monkey — and, of course, to examine a bear named Sarah.
His research helped him to develop the “double-bundled” method of reconstructive ACL surgery, which incorporated a complex understanding of the knee. Though Fu went onto publish more of the top-100 cited papers on ACL reconstruction than any other surgeon in the world, some surgeons ridiculed the new procedure at first. “That’s their problem,” he’d tell Maroon.
Eventually, the skeptical surgeons came around. In 2008, he was named president of the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine.
‘We Are Going to Fix It’
In addition to his medical knowledge, what set Fu apart from many surgeons was his sunny and upbeat attitude.
West had done fellowships with other orthopaedic surgeons who would prepare their injured athletes for the worst possible outcome — that they might never play again. But Fu was the opposite.
“He’d say, ‘We are going to fix it, and you will be back playing.’”
That optimism buoyed up the spirits of Steve Israel, a Pitt cornerback who suffered a devastating injury in 1989. During a third quarter kick return, he heard a pop in his knee and felt severe pain. He had torn not only the ACL but also the meniscus, the tough rubbery cartilage in the knee that cushions and stabilizes the joint.
The next day, Fu explained the surgical options to a teary-eyed Israel. “I was ripped apart,” Israel says. He didn’t know of any cornerback who had survived ACL surgery and gone on to play in the NFL.
Fu got out of his chair, walked around the table and lifted Israel’s dejected face. Looking him in the eye, he says, “I’ll fix you. You’ll see. You’ll be a pro player. I promise. I’ll fix you.”
He was right. A few years later, Fu’s handiwork became the talk of recruiters during the NFL’s annual Scouting Combine, where teams get together to thoroughly check the medical charts of college draft prospects for injuries and do full physical evaluations.
“All 32 teams were just so amazed by my knee, how good it looked,” Israel says.
“Trainers and doctors from one team’s table would yell to another team, ‘Hey, did you see Israel’s knee?’ All eyes were on my knee. It was like the cutest girl in the room.”
When Israel was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams, Fu hugged him. During his 10-year career in the NFL, Israel would come back to Pittsburgh and join Fu during presentations about his surgery. They would also talk about life. “He was not just my doctor,” Israel says. “He was my mentor.”
‘He Was Like a Big Kid’
Everyone, it seems, has a Fu story to tell.
Like the time he spoke at a conference in Washington state and asked another doctor to go for a run with him during an hour-long break. Midway through the jog, Fu saw a lake, stripped down to his underwear and took a dip. He shook off the water, put his clothes back on and ran back to the conference for his next presentation — without missing a beat, Romanowski remembers.
Or how he would wake up his fellows at 3 a.m. to talk about a research idea. Or tell them to go to Mount Washington to photograph the sunrise. A skilled amateur photographer, Fu would use his iPhone to take a daily snapshot — a beautiful flower, cityscape or exotic plate of food — and send it to hundreds of friends and family members around the world. Or how he took his then 10-year-old daughter, Joyce, to Kennywood 10 times over two weeks, riding the Thunderbolt over and over. It was a father-daughter treat when her mother and brother were out of town.
“He was like a big kid,” says his son, Gordon Ka-Hong Fu, who lives in Connecticut. Especially with his five grandchildren.
Despite Fu’s workaholic tendencies, Gordon says, “I never felt like I had to share him with anyone.” That even includes the famous athletes whose photos are plastered all over the walls of the sports medicine center — “The Fu-seum,” as it was sometimes called.
He mugged with photos of athletes he operated on, as well as others he met such as famed cyclist Greg LeMond. An avid cyclist himself who sponsored the Freddie Fu Cycling Team in Pittsburgh — an organization that is still active — he would log 100 miles or more on the road — until he was hit by a car in 2001. (Among his injuries was an ACL tear but he decided not to have surgery because he was not a competitive athlete).
He also was a big fan of ballet, posing with dancer and choreographer Mikhail Baryshnikov, and helping injured members of the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre back on stage. The company physician and a board member of the Pittsburgh Ballet, he operated on the left knee of Julia Erickson, recently retired principal.
“He really placed dancers on the same level of physical accomplishments as big-deal sports stars,” Erickson says. “I saw my picture next to football stars. Dancers are not used to that.”
Of course, over the years not everyone outside the city appreciated the good press and acclaim Fu received.
“It’s funny,” West says, “people on the outside would say, ‘Oh, he’s this big self-promoter. He loves the cameras. He’s so selfish.’ But he was the opposite of that. He wasn’t promoting himself. He was promoting his vision of multi-disciplinary care.”
Even in the months before his death, Fu was still providing that care. In August 2021, Charles Smith, the former Pitt and NBA basketball star, called him for advice about shoulder surgery for his son, Chayce, a walk-on basketball player at Pitt.
As always, Fu enthusiastically offered his help, referring him to one of his surgeons. Charles Smith had no idea his longtime friend was gravely ill — until he received a call from a Pitt official a month later.
Smith flew immediately to Pittsburgh to say goodbye and to make good on a promise to share a meal — the Dr. Fu Special at Lulu’s Noodles in Oakland.
A simple dish of thin egg noodles, bean sprouts and scallions reminiscent of Hong Kong street food, it was a special order that Fu asked for so often that Lulu’s added it to the menu and named it after him.
“Freddie couldn’t eat, but he perked up a little,” Smith says.
Thirty-seven years and two-career saving surgeries after they met on a basketball court, the star athlete teared up as he saw the star doctor one last time.
Stories by Cristina Rouvalis have appeared in Hemispheres, PARADE, AARP the Magazine, Inc, Smithsonian.com and other national publications. When she is not writing with a cat or two on her lap, she can be found biking along the Great Allegheny Passage.