Le Docteur

Jul 7 2017
Laurent Duvernay-Tardif
Kansas City Chiefs
Jul 7 2017

It was a late night in the ER at Montreal General, when two police officers walked in with a suspect in cuffs. One of the officers had suffered a bad gash on his arm while making the arrest and needed stitches.

Fortunately this was a simple job — and one I was happy to perform.

As a medical student, suturing simple wounds is one of my skills in the emergency department. I always welcome the opportunity to practice fine dexterity with my huge hands.

When I introduced myself to the officers, the injured one immediately perked up.

“Aren’t you that NFL player from McGill?” he asked. “It has to be you!”

I smiled and confirmed my identity. I’m six-foot-five and weigh over 300 pounds. Those are normal measurements for an offensive linemen, but slightly above average for a doctor in residency.

People react to receiving stitches in a number of ways. This guy, oddly enough, was really excited.

“Oh, my God, this is so awesome!”

I just laughed and kept stitching.

“Now I’m going to have your autograph for the rest of my life,” he said, beaming and looking down at his newly sewn-up wound.

Generally, nobody who visits an ER in a given day woke up in the morning expecting to go there. To them, it’s an inconvenience — at best. So by now I’m used to getting a certain reaction from patients who end up in a place they weren’t expecting to be, only to be receiving treatment from a person they weren’t expecting to meet. It doesn’t make my job any easier or harder, just different.

Honestly, I’m simply thankful for the opportunity to treat them, and in rare cases, yes, to give them my autograph. My ultimate goals have always been to promote and push the concept of being a student-athlete at the highest level — to show that it is possible to pursue two very different passions.

To most, it might seem more sensible to choose either football or medicine. But that was a choice I never wanted to make.

So I didn’t.

Dominique Lafond

I was born in Montreal and grew up in a suburb called Mont-Saint-Hilaire. My family used to be in the wine business, so I spent a large chunk of my childhood playing in and working on a vineyard. Nowadays my family runs a bakery in Montreal, Le Pain dans Les Voiles. Food and drink have always been central in my family.

Sports have always been important, too. I have two younger sisters, and both of them are athletes. The older one, Delphine, is a cross-country skier, and the younger one, Marilou, is in the Canadian Olympic rowing development program.

I played football when I was young but gave it up after only a couple of years. Later on, I rediscovered my passion for the sport in CEGEP, which is kind of like a two-year undergraduate program in Quebec that occurs right after high school. When I walked on to my CEGEP football team as a defensive lineman, I immediately loved it. I loved the contact, I loved the strategy and I loved that I was pretty good at it. So by the time I graduated, I was sure that I wanted to continue playing football at university.

The other thing I was sure of was that I wanted to practice medicine. Initially I was interested in engineering, but after looking into it, I realized that while I loved the scientific and logical aspects of engineering, I craved the ability to have a social impact. That’s why medicine called to me.

Medicine to me is like the perfect balance between hard sciences — pharmacology or atoms-physiology, for example — and human sciences, like sociology and psychology. There’s this combined challenge of not only thoroughly understanding treatments, but also applying them to different patients from varying backgrounds. You need to have a balance of social skills, psychology and pure science. I had no idea if I was actually cut out to be a doctor. I don’t think anybody does until they start practicing. What I did know was that I wanted to dedicate my life to discovering if I could become a great one.

In Quebec, there are four main medical schools. Three are French-speaking, and then there’s McGill University, which is English-speaking. I got accepted to McGill, and, as most Canadians would probably tell you, you really can’t turn down a chance to attend McGill. The only problem was that CEGEP had been in French, and I didn’t really speak a whole lot of English.

Before I enrolled, everyone kept telling me that my English wasn’t quite good enough for the rigors of medical school, and that I would really need to devote all my energies to academics if I wanted to have any chance of success. Football, they told me, was just a hobby — a distraction. Even though every part of me wanted to play, I initially decided to follow a commonsense plan and give my full attention to medical school. I figured that sometimes others can see things you can’t. Right?

Well, not always.

Three weeks into my first semester, I wasn’t feeling like myself. I couldn’t focus, and I also couldn’t shake this feeling inside of me that something was missing. I found myself watching a lot of football. When I couldn’t go to McGill’s games, I’d watch them on TV. I felt off-kilter, and it was clear to me what I needed to do in order to get out of my funk. So a few weeks into the semester, I approached McGill’s head coach — who had recruited me just a few months earlier — and told him that I had made a real mistake. Fortunately he agreed to let me join the team, and I played on the defensive line that year.

When I wasn’t at practice, I spent a lot of my time in a restaurant across the street from my parents’ bakery streaming McGill lectures that were in English and cross-referencing them with a French-English dictionary. I was lucky to have the help of a really pretty waitress named Florence, who not only spoke English, but who would also eventually become my girlfriend. She was an art history student at the University of Quebec and spent a lot of that year patiently helping me to interpret those complex lectures in way that made sense.

As for personal balance, it turned out I was right. Once I had football in my life, everything else kind of fit into place. I always earned my best grades during the fall semesters while I was playing. Even with all the workouts, practices, film study and travel, I was more productive in school when I had football as an outlet.

Balancing both responsibilities of course had its challenges. During the fall, I literally had to account for every minute of my time. Some of my teammates at McGill gave me the nickname “Dr. Kill” because I would show up in the locker room before practice in my scrubs. Honestly, I was never crazy about the nickname, but hey, I get it.

With the help of football, Florence and my tiny dictionary, I survived my first year of med school with a decent amount of success. Now I had no doubts that being a doctor was something I could do. And the next season the coaches, noticing my athleticism, moved me to the offensive line. I’ve been there ever since.

As I progressed in medical school, I also progressed as a football player. It’s pretty rare for guys playing in Canada to move on to the NFL, but by my third year at McGill I started hearing rumblings that it may be a possibility.

Immediately leading up to the 2014 NFL draft, I was on a full-time pediatric rotation at Montreal General, which meant long hours and little sleep. With permission from the dean, I had just taken four months off from school to play in the East-West Shrine Game and to train full-time in the States for the draft.

The Shrine Game was pretty pivotal because it was my first opportunity to actually compete against top talent from the U.S.. Up until that point, I had a sense that I was athletic enough to hold my own, but it was also a matter of whether I had the technique and intensity to play at the highest level. Once I was on the practice field in Florida competing with the other college players, it became clear to me that I wasn’t out of my league. In fact, I came out on the better end of the vast majority of blocking drills. It was at that point that scouts started to watch me a little bit closer.

On the Saturday of the draft, I was hanging out at a friend’s place near the hospital. I was tired because I had stayed late after my shift to assist in the neonatal intensive care unit, where I had been on hand to help the obstetrician perform a C-section to deliver premature twins. I was sitting on my buddy’s couch watching the picks scroll by on the screen when, sometime in the sixth round, my phone rang. When I looked at the I.D., I saw that the call was from Kansas City.

The Chiefs were selecting me with the 200th pick.

My initial reaction was immense excitement. I was only the 15th person to be drafted by the NFL straight out of the U Sports (Canada’s version of the NCAA). I felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment.

Then, after a few moments of elation, the next thing I felt was panic. I was told that I needed to be on a plane to Kansas City the very next morning — when I was also scheduled to be on rotation.

So my first thought wasn’t, Oh, my God, this is amazing!

It was, Oh, my God, how am I going to explain this to the dean?

I think most college football players in the U.S. have friends, teammates and coaches who know the ins and outs of the whole draft process. Being the only player on my team with a shot at the NFL, I hadn’t even considered just what the timeline would be if I actually got picked in the draft. I hadn’t really thought to Google, “What happens when you get drafted into the NFL?” Not only was I going to have to take a break from medical school, but I was also going to have to leave even before completing my rotation.

Anyone familiar with medical school understands that the schedules aren’t flexible. They’re set in stone. And that was a problem for me.

I had to scramble to get ahold of the dean and let him know about the situation. Prior to me taking a four-month break to train for the draft, we had devised a four-year schedule to account for my final year of rotations. What we hadn’t accounted for was me having to fly out to Kansas City right after getting picked. Luckily he was incredibly understanding. He told me to do what I needed to do, and that we’d work out the details later.

That was when I finally allowed myself to celebrate. I was officially a Kansas City Chief. Me, a French Canadian kid from the South Shore of Montreal. I was going to play in the NFL.

Ed Zurga/AP Images

Four years into my NFL career, it’s difficult not to connect my experiences pursuing medicine to whatever success I’ve experienced playing football.

The discipline required to study medicine — the long hours, the note taking, the attention to detail — definitely made my transition to the NFL easier. Even just having a better understanding of how to take care of my body with nutrition and hydration has been helpful. But beyond that, playing in the NFL has taught me how to deal with failure in a way I’ve never experienced before. You can practice really hard and be at the very top of your art, but sometimes that’s still not enough to win a game.

By nature I’m a very competitive person, and playing football at this level has instilled in me a certain sense of resilience that has definitely helped me in my pursuit in medicine. Just like you can’t win every game, you won’t always have a successful outcome with every patient. What is in your control is how you deal with loss and disappointment. Learning how to keep a clear mind so that I can take lessons from every experience, regardless of the outcome, has definitely made me a better physician, as well as a better football player.

And now that I’m pretty deep into both pursuits, I usually get asked by both football and medical professionals about my two passions.

People from the football side of my life often ask me why I continue with medical school during the off-seasons. After all, I just signed a new contract in February that will keep me in Kansas City long-term.

I’m incredibly proud to be a member of the Kansas City Chiefs, first and foremost. The organization is all class, and our fan base is second to none. If you’ve been to Arrowhead, you know exactly what I mean. I honestly can’t imagine playing anywhere else.

Of course, I’ve encountered some people from the medical community who have questioned why I continue to play football. Given what is known about the risks associated with the game, it’s difficult for some people to understand why I would choose to pursue it when I’m so close to earning my medical degree.

My response to them is that, like with most things, it’s a balance. Of course I’m aware of the risks I’m taking on, likely more so than most other players. But what I always go back to are the things that this game gives to me.

Yes, the injury risks are real in football, but what’s more concerning is the message sent by not being active. In North America, there are many more people who die from obesity, hypertension and diabetes than there are who suffer injuries related to physical activity. Just looking at it from the perspective that the sport is dangerous is somewhat close-minded in that sense, because the risks associated with not pursuing an active lifestyle are much greater in my opinion.

From a personal perspective though, I can never forget where I’m from and where football has taken me. I’m from a small town in Quebec. Football has opened doors to cultural experiences that medicine and most other professions couldn’t. In an NFL locker room, there are people of various ethnic, religious, socioeconomic and geographic backgrounds. And you get to spend time with them, get to know them, and you sweat and bleed alongside them in order to achieve a common goal. All of us are so different, but in this one regard we’re all the same. In my short time in the NFL, I’ve been exposed to entirely new ways of viewing the world, ways that otherwise would have been completely foreign to me.

And I believe these encounters will only help me to better understand and connect with patients I encounter in the future. Perhaps they’ll also help me to empathize in ways that I otherwise might not have before.

Ultimately, I’m just like any other full-time NFL player. In the off-season, I’m free to pursue my own interests. I had one year of medical school left when I got drafted, so I worked out an arrangement with the faculty to complete my final year in three separate four-month blocks. I did my first two segments in 2015 and ’16, and I’m splitting my final segment between this current off-season and next. Interestingly, when my next med school semester starts will depend on when my season ends, and with the Chiefs competing in the playoffs every year, my dates keep getting pushed back.

As it stands, I’m on track to receive my medical degree in May 2018.

The following year, I’m hoping to become the first NFL player to step on the field with an M.D. in my back pocket — and maybe on the back of my jersey.

We’ll see.

Laurent Duvernay-Tardif
Kansas City Chiefs