Champ Baker Jr. is in the twilight of a distinguished career.
A skilled orthopedic surgeon, Baker, 67, has done more than 15,000 operations -- from shoulder to ankle -- during his time in the U.S. Army and the last three decades-plus at the Hughston Clinic in Columbus.
As important as a surgeon's hands are, Baker says his ears are also important.
"Patients will tell you what's wrong with them if you'll just listen," Baker said.
Recently, Baker sat down with Ledger-Enquirer reporter Chuck Williams to discuss his career, mentors, including Dr. Jack Hughston, his close friend Dr. Jim Andrews and his son and colleague, Dr. Champ Baker III.
Here are excerpts of the interview, with some of the questions edited for length and the order of some of the questions rearranged for clarity.
How long have you been working in Columbus and how long have you been working in orthopedics?
I did a fellowship with Dr. Hughston in 1979, a calendar year. I was active duty Army at the time -- I did 10 years in the Army Medical Corps. ... I was at Fort Stewart, and they had a new program that you could do a civilian fellowship -- this was 1978 -- and stay active duty. So, I was one of the first in the nation to take advantage of it. Did the fellowship with Dr. Hughston, went back to Fort Sam (Houston) for two years, and I came back here March 1982.
What makes a good orthopedic surgeon?
Two things. One is technical ability, because it's a surgeon. But more important, ... to me it's listening to patients.
They've done studies that the normal is, I guess, doctors interrupt somebody 45 seconds into their history. I try not to do that. I try to listen and they'll tell you what's wrong.
Patients come to doctors for several reasons. One is they know they're hurt, they want to know what it is. They think they're hurt, they're not sure if they need to have something done. And some are just scared -- their aunt had cancer, they've got this pain in their back, they just want to be assured. So, they come for a lot of reasons.
I'm in a service business, you know what I mean? It's meet-and-greet at the door, shake your hand: "I'm Champ Baker. How are you? How can I help you today?" And they'll tell you if you'll listen as to why they're here. And that's what I tell the fellows. Your job is to determine why they're here, give them a diagnosis, give them a plan of action, whether it's therapy, reassurance or options.
Options. And then at the end, always ask them a question. Let them know they got their nickel's worth. And that's what makes a good doctor ... that the patient feels he got his questions answered and he got a plan.
Where did you learn to develop your listening skills, because not every doctor does it, right?
A lot of it from Dr. Hughston. Dr. Hughston built this place, and he was a good surgeon -- technical surgeon -- and he had some vision, but he was a good doc. He took care of polio back in the 1950s -- he was one of those that stayed up all night with the polio patients in the '50s in all of South Georgia.
But Dr. Hughston stressed several things. I'm never Dr. Baker -- I always introduce myself as Champ Baker. I always sit -- I'm six-five -- I don't stand. ... I sit with them, I essentially touch them. I make sure I've touched them, and I sit with them. And that way I think they get a reassurance and then they'll sort of open up or tell you what's really wrong. You rarely have to ask.
And a lot of that is from Dr. Hughston. He was never Dr., he was always Jack Hughston. Now, he was Dr. Hughston to us, but to patients he was Jack Hughston.
Where did you get the name Champ?
It's a family name. I'm a junior. We have a son who is the Third, he has a son who is the Fourth. As you know, it's a Southern thing. My dad was from Louisiana. His folks were from Holland, and they were in Michigan and then came down. His father was a railroad man -- Champion Pendleton Johnson, his grandfather. And it was shortened to Champ, so he was named Champ. I'm a junior and we've kept it down the line.
That's a pretty good name for a guy from Louisiana.
It's an interesting name. I was "Buddy" growing up, and then you go off to school and you go by your given name. It is a unique name and since it's always been my name I've never thought much about it.
So when you went off to school you went to LSU. You are a Tiger through and through, right?
I'm a Tiger. LSU undergrad and LSU med school.
Did you play sports at LSU?
I played basketball.
Did you play with Pete Maravich?
I played two years before Maravich. I did some pickup games with him. We were on the same team. I played freshman ball and then Maravich came. And when Maravich played freshman ball, it was in the Cow Palace -- it was where they had the rodeos. Freshmen played separate freshman ball. And you'd go watch Maravich play and then the place would clear out. As a freshman, he was something else. So it was pretty obvious. He was my height, six-five. The stuff he did with the ball!
So did you have to guard him some?
You didn't guard him long. It was pretty obvious he was in a different league, and he was not in my league. So I quit basketball or they quit me more or less, and I went into studies.
What is the natural relationship between an orthopedist and athletes?
It's changing a little, but most jocks who went into medicine went into orthopedics. They used to say if you want to hide something from an orthopedist, you put it in a book. That's stereotyping. It's sort of gone now, and there's a lot of bright young kids in orthopedics now.
But because it's a dynamic practice... I mean, we run the gamut from -- I did arthroscopy today for three shoulders and Thursday I'm doing a hip scope, I'm doing an ACL, I'm doing a bunch of different things. Most of what I see is injury-induced.
It doesn't have to be an athlete, so you're seeing the result of somebody physically doing something, and that's what sports is. It's an active process, so our business is to see people with problems, muscular, skeletal, and most of those come to us because they are doing something.
(Some may have been) in a car accident, but most people did something. And it may be something as simple as walking in the garden and tripping -- you get trauma, too. Our business in orthopedics, and particularly in sports medicine, is to make a decision because you're on the sideline, and he hurts his knee and the coach says, "Can he play?" That's all he wants to know. Can he play?
And that's a decision that has to be made on the spot?
On the spot. Your priority is to the athlete and is he safe to play. Sometimes, yeah, he's fine -- he's safe to play, and if he's not safe then you hold him out. Sometimes that's a problem. Depends on the coach, depends on the trainer how much it's a problem. Most docs who work with teams have a nice relationship with the coaches and they trust their opinion. And that's what you have to do as a sports doc. You've got to get the trust of the athlete, trust of the trainer and trust of the coach, because your word dictates what happens.
Athletes don't like to see physicians because all they see is: "You can't play or you need an operation." And what you've got to do is get the trust so he'll tell you, "Doc, I really hurt." Then you can treat them. All they think you're going to say is, "Can't play, need surgery."
And that's not really true, because all sports docs' interest primarily is making sure the athlete is safe to return to competition. We care about who wins if you take care of that team, but it's trying to be his advocate on the field and later on in the clinic. Somebody has got to be it, and that's your job. So athletics and ortho sports medicine go hand-in-hand because we are constantly looking and making decisions, and that's what you've got to do.
How difficult is it for a physician to make that decision on the call of an athlete? I know last year a former doctor here, Dr. Jim Andrews, was in the middle of a dispute involving Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III.
Miscommunication is what happened. Jimmy says exactly what happened: It's hard to be right because it's an afterthought, OK? And the problem is you think you can go in and you can't. Or you think he can go in until he gets hit again.
That's what happened in that instance. The player came off and they go to see and he says, "I'm fine." He runs back on the field. He was never seen by the doctor. So the coach turns to the doc, the doc says, "Sure," because he never saw him. He came out and went in again. Turns out he was injured. That particular athlete is such a good athlete that he was able to play in the face of an injury that most people could not have.
But you're right. That blew up and it was lack of communication between the doc and the coach. And the trainer should have been involved. You seldom answer to the coach -- you answer to the trainer because the trainer answers to the coach, particularly in college.
So there's a protocol?
Should be. In college, it really is. I took over Alabama, (Ray) Perkins' last year, and I answered to the trainer. I'd go over every Wednesday, examine patients and determine who could play or not play and then the trainer would meet with the coach the next day -- here's who is able to play ....
That was the team with Cornelius Bennett, right?
(Mike) Shula was the quarterback, Bennett, Bobby Humphries, Gene Jelks. They played in the Sun Bowl.
I went to that Sun Bowl game. I covered that game in El Paso.
That's interesting, because on the way home Coach Perkins says, "I'm leaving." There had been rumors, but I didn't pay any attention, that he would love to go to Tampa Bay. And he did.
So, you're on the plane when he told you? What was that like?
First of all, it's a lot of "What about me?" I was the team doc. We had already had discussions because I'm in Columbus, they are in Tuscaloosa. Coach Perkins and I had already met one time. He wanted to talk about the future. He was getting a lot of heat -- Andrews was in Birmingham at that time -- a lot of heat about why the football team was being cared for by a guy from Georgia. He said, "I'm real happy, but you may have to move to Tuscaloosa. We'll take care of you." I said, "I am not ready to mentally make the move," but I said if you'll let me know if I've got to make that choice. He ended up leaving so it never came to fruition. And then one of the fellows took the job who was from there and played ball there.
You've been the doc for Auburn basketball, Alabama football. Should college athletes be paid?
They are paid. Actually, I think they should be paid more. They're paid because they have a scholarship, and depending on the school, it's worth a lot of money. So essentially a high school senior gets a four-year ride to an ACC school. They get a four-year ride, tuition and books. It's not enough, is the problem. So the question comes in: "What we give them to play ball for a school, is it enough? Is it just tuition?" The answer is no. They need a supplement. I don't know what amount.
Then the other problem comes in... the schools are making a lot of money off of them. So, is it fair? That's the second problem: "How fair are you treating these kids because they're doing all the work and you're making all the money?" So I think they should get more compensation. I think the scholarship should be five years guaranteed, whether you stay or don't stay, because right now it's year-to-year.
They used to get laundry money. Well, laundry money has got to be increased -- I don't know the amount. You're still going to have some schools that are going to pay more, because they want their team to do better. And the problem with paying is that some schools can't afford it. The SEC is no problem. You get some of these schools -- D-Is, some of the smaller ones -- can't afford to pay the same thing. So it's got to be graduated or otherwise everybody won't go to that school because they're going to make more money over here. It's a tricky situation, but I think they've got to be compensated more.
Talk a little bit about Dr. Hughston. Was he your mentor?
When I was president of Sports Medicine, you give the end-of-the-year speech and I named five people who had mentored me. Two were my chief and my assistant chief in the Army when I trained.
Col. Sterling Mutts, who ran the service. He's still living, is a hand surgeon. He's in his late 80s now and lives in California. And Col. John Feagin. Col. Feagin was the first West Point grad to go to med school. I didn't go to West Point, but he started the process of West Point guys eventually going to med school and becoming orthopedists. ... Dr. Feagin got me sort of involved in sports as a subset of orthopedics more than anybody else.
I spent time with Dick Steadman when Dick was in Tahoe. Dick was the U.S. Ski Team doctor. He started the Steadman Hawkins Clinic. I knew Dick when he was at LSU. I use to scrub at night at LSU moonlighting. Steadman was chief resident and I met him that way and Feagin hooked us up three years later when I was a resident in San Francisco.
Those three, and of course Jimmy Andrews. Dr. Andrews was here when I was here. He's an LSU grad, just like Dr. Hughston. All three LSU grads -- Dr. Hughston, Andrews and I. All different times.
But Jimmy is a very gifted surgeon and has a knack of knowing the vision, knowing the future. A lot of his claim is he could see the future. He's a big baseball physician, and that came because at that time the Astros were here. And Dr. Hughston said, "I don't want to see baseball players. You go down to the ballpark."
Jimmy goes to the ballpark, can't get in. So, he bought the team -- he and five guys. It was for sale. He was the team owner, and then he started going to spring training. Now, this is the late '70s.
Had Dr. Frank Jobe done the first Tommy John surgery by then?
Tommy John was in 1974.
So, Tommy John had been done?
Yeah. Nobody knew that Tommy John had been done. He didn't play but for a couple of years, if you remember.
... Jimmy would take the fellows and go down to spring training. (Nobody went except Dr. Jobe. He went to Vero Beach with the Dodgers. No one went.) So, when I came into practice in 1982, I'd go with him, because we were partners, but I didn't train under him. We took care of the Philadelphia Phillies, the Kansas City Royals, the Houston Astros, the Texas Rangers -- we did all of their minor leaguers.
They would come up for spring training, or get hurt, or stop on the way. George Brett stopped one time at the airport. We did all of their minor leaguers because their docs didn't go, All their minor leaguers, and they eventually become major leaguers. Jimmy saw the vision of taking care of going, just like Dr. Hughston did when we went to where the players were. He went to the sidelines. Jimmy went to spring training. And that's where they get to know who he is, what he was, and you sort of see players here and there.
Then Jimmy went to the elbow. He was scooping elbows, arthroscopy on elbows -- nobody really did -- and did a couple of pretty famous... He's got a couple of articles that were done in the late '70s that are classics -- one in the shoulder for a slap tear and one for his elbow for a bone impingement.
So, he saw the future, I guess, in getting that feel first and then he just capitalized, because he is a good doc. ... People automatically quickly trust him.
He has that ability to sit down and just one-on-one, whether it was a grandmother, a ballplayer, whoever it was. And all that surround stuff, you've got to be able to just focus on me and you and not worry that there's three trainers, TV is outside, you know, and the guy is going to sign a contract depending on what you say. He could block all of that out and concentrate.
And the fifth (mentor) is Dr. Hughston, who I trained under and learned a lot. Learned how to take care of patients, learned how to make decisions. Everything was done open then, so my orthopedic surgical skills didn't come necessarily from him -- some were self-taught and some from Jimmy. But I learned how to take care of patients. I felt I did, and that's really what I think he gave me more than anything -- that and an appreciation of where I was and who I was.
Think about the Hughston Clinic. We're proud of being a Hughston Clinic employee and physician here, and that pride translates to the hospital, the hospital across the river.
Does the name Hughston have a prestige to it?
And that is because of Dr. Hughston?
It started with Dr. Hughston. And of course, Andrews was here, and the docs who have followed since then. We have been able to keep a level of expertise no matter what. When Dr. Hughston was here, it was mainly sports medicine -- joints were just coming in. We did some arthroplasty, did some spine, did some trauma. When I first came, we covered Cobb Hospital. We covered the old Medical Center, Doctors. HCA built our hospital in '84 and we all sort of came out here. Now the practice is primarily arthroplasty, a lot of total joint replacement -- hips and knees primarily.
How long has Dr. Hughston been out of the practice?
He died in '04 at 87. He operated until he was 75, which would be around '92. He occasionally would see patients. He was never out of the influence of what we did -- which was good and bad.
How has the clinic morphed in the post-Hughston era?
We have expanded. He often said maybe he should have gone to Atlanta. He came here because Mrs. Hughston is a Hardaway and is from here. And he is from here. But for what he did, Atlanta might have been better served. So, when he was here, we had a practice in Columbus and one in Auburn. We started satellite clinics. We started going to Valdosta, we had six offices in Atlanta before that group merged off. We got 13 satellite clinics that come out of here. Instead of a one-man practice that came to him, we are now 29 physicians and we go to you. The surgery is done here, but we cover these satellite clinics. It is easier for the patient. They will come see you in Dothan, get evaluated. If they need surgery, they will make a ride up to the hospital. We are just a small town in Georgia. To get the volume of what we need, we have had to expand. It has gone from a one-man practice in 1949. I was No. 8 when I started in '82. Now, I am No. 2 in seniority -- Dr. John Waldrop started in 1979.
Should this clinic be in this community?
Should TSYS be here? Should Aflac be here? Should Carmike be here? This is our home base and we have not left it. It is a clinic that has an international reputation. If you mention Hughston Clinic to orthopedists in the United States, they will know about it. ... We have expanded that brand, we have morphed into management of other practices. There was a time several years ago where big groups were merging. We met with Steadman's group, the group in New York, Andrews' group, Jobe's group in Los Angeles about doing super groups. We didn't. We kept our own. ... Everybody got in trouble.
The one problem with medicine is the patient is not responsible for the bill. He doesn't have any skin in the game. He pays his deductible, and thinks he's paid. Insurance companies are involved in the choice. Everybody in the early '90s was struggling because reimbursements dropped and you had to leave the art of medicine to the business of medicine -- that is what we were able to do. Dr. Hughston ran a mom-and-pop shop. It was him and a bookkeeper and they started the practice. Now, it is a big business and we have succeeded in being successful in business.
Which is not easy for some doctors?
No, it is not easy at all. And what sets us apart is we are physician-owned. ... We own this business.
What do you own?
We own the hospital across the river (Jack Hughston Hospital). We own the surgery center. We own our own therapy. We are officially out of debt as of March of this year. The senior guys paid it off. The hospital has a note, but the clinic has no note. In today's market, we are successful financially. That hospital across the river has won 29 awards for service care. The clinic docs are proud of what they do and it translates to employees. That is a very good hospital for patients. Everybody is happy to be there, and you don't see that a lot of places. With Dr. Hughston, I think about perception -- and that is what you think about me. If I had a big stain right here, you would think, "That guy is a little sloppy. If he is sloppy walking around, I wonder if he is sloppy in the OR."
... We have been successful as a group because there is pride in being a Hughston employee.
How many employees?
We have 29 docs, 13 PAs. Between 650 and 700 employees between the hospital, clinic and satellite centers. We are a fairly big business. We are not a Medical Center or St. Francis, but we are a busy practice.
So, you own a lot of businesses except the hospital that is on your campus?
Yes. Columbus Regional owns it.
They removed Dr. Hughston's name from that hospital, what was your reaction to that?
They should have done it two years before when they bought the hospital -- it wasn't his anymore, it wasn't ours any more. ... HCA built it. We had absolutely no financial interest in the hospital. It was always HCA. They supported the foundation with a stipend, They made all the money, but we did all the work. But everybody was happy -- we had our hospital, Dr. Hughston was pleased. It was built for the future of the clinic. Dr. Hughston was 65 when it opened. We tried to buy it a couple of times. Dr. Hughston was initially opposed to owning anything. He was old-school -- you didn't advertise, you took care of patients. Everything sort of flowed.
He was of a generation that didn't like debt, right?
He didn't like debt. But if you've got money, you don't mind debt. Dr. Hughston made his money. Your reputation was your advertisement. And that is true today. Everybody advertises. This (interview) is advertisement, but it is not blatant. Anyway, we tried to buy the hospital several times. We had a deal at one time, but HCA declined to sell to doctors. Then they sold Doctors (Hospital) and this one to the Medical Center. Quite honestly, I think the Medical Center thought we would have to work for them or St. Francis. At that time, Cobb (in Phenix City) was long closed.
Didn't work out that way, did it?
We sort of went across the river in the middle of the night. It was interesting. We did it under the radar.
Should doctors own hospitals?
If you look at statistics on cost and outcomes, they should own all of them. They are cheaper, better run and more cost efficient. We run that hospital very efficiently. Mark Baker, who is the CEO of the clinic, is the CEO of the hospital. There is a head nurse, there is an operating person, there is a financial officer, then there are employees. We don't have four or five vice presidents. You can run a hospital efficiently without a lot of middle management. A physican-run hospital means they are in control. Yes, you make money. But you make money as long as you take the risk. That hospital (Phenix City) was not doing well. They came to us and said, "Will you buy half the hospital?" We said, "No, we'll buy it all."
How has the Affordable Care Act impacted specialists such as you?
Thus far all it has done is tell the patient, "No, I don't accept your insurance." You can't give away care. You have people who had no insurance, now they have insurance. It is not good insurance. Nobody in this state accepts Medicaid because you lose money every time you see a Medicaid patient. You can't run a successful business losing money every time you do something. If I sold a car and lost money every time, I would be run out of the car business.
No specialist in the state of Georgia takes Medicaid because it does not cover your costs of seeing that patient. Obamacare or the Affordable Care Act rates are the same, so right now we don't accept it.
Medicare has become the level.
You take Medicare and Tri-Care?
Oh, yeah. We take Tri-Care because we are in a military town and think we should.
There was a thing in a magazine a couple of years ago. A physician in the Northeast, he said, "Mrs. X -- let's say Jones -- came in today, she is 85 and needed a total knee replacement, left knee. I did her right knee, total knee, 20 years ago. I am walking her chart out and it drops on the floor. Out comes her bill from 20 years before -- then the Medicare usual payment for this is $4,000, today it is $1,000, and now it is less than that." What used to pay you $4,000 20 years ago, now pays less than $1,000. Everything else has gone up, but reimbursement has gone down.
We will accept Medicare -- everybody does -- but more and more are trying to get out of Medicare. If I see you for Medicare, I can't sell you a brace. You have to go downtown to get a brace. I can't mark it up to cover my storage and costs. Tri-Care is about the same rate as Medicare. In this town with military population we all take Tri-Care.
If they took the money they have spent on the Affordable Care Act and said, "You have no insurance, you are now enrolled in Medicare, we will cover you," everybody would have been happy. We would see everybody who wanted to be seen. I would get reimbursed. You would be able to treat everybody under a rate that is not great, but acceptable. You could have solved the problem by giving them insurance. What was done is they changed the whole game for an inferior product.
How many years of school and fellowships did it take for you to get to where you could start practicing?
You leave Brookstone, you come back in 14 years. My son left Brookstone and in 14 years he was coming back ready to work -- four years of college, four years of med school, internship, four years of residency, a year of fellowship.
And you are spending money those 14 years?
You are paying for everything. The last four years are working. And some schools are pretty expensive. Some people say in Europe they got free medicine. In Europe, they are not getting out of med school with debt -- tremendous debt. It doesn't work in this country that you can treat people for free because I did not get my education for free. The trade-off is if you want to have free medicine, you have to have free education, free food, everything else.
That is socialism, what you just described?
No, not really. If you want to do that, you have to do the rest. They want to give free medicine. The patient should be responsible for his heath care. When they become responsible, eating goes down. They don't smoke and they take better care of themselves. After World War II, Kysor started health care as a benefit. Now it has gone whacko. It is not because of what you are paying me -- it is what you are paying the insurance company and others. It is bureaucracy. And that is not going away. You just added to it.
Are U.S. Army Rangers athletes?
Oh, yeah. Big-time.
Are they on par with high-level collegiate or professional athletes?
I think they are ahead. The high-level collegiate athletes do a skill. A Ranger, they do it all. They are involved in elements. They are involved in decision-making that effects life and death. They have skills -- look at the weaponry. And they have endurance.
A guy who runs a 4.4 40, that is his skill. He's fast, but the Rangers and the SEALS, that is a whole different brand. If you have a Ranger to take care of, it is an honor. And they get well quicker. They do what you tell them to do, and they say, "Yes sir and no sir." It is a pleasure to take care of all of our servicemen. They are professionals. And you treat a professional like a professional and you get a professional approach. They take pride in what they do. Too many people don't take pride in their appearance.
Your son is in your practice now. How is that?
It is special. He is very well-trained, and not by me. He trained at two great places, Pittsburgh and Chicago at Rush (University Medical Center). But then you come back and go into the day-to-day grind. Orthopedics is a grind. The fellows are not used to the grind when they first start. I think he was a little surprised this is what it really is. It is not all ACLs or rotator cuffs. He is very gifted surgically. What I like is he treats patients like I treat them. We operate together, same day -- he does his and I do mine. We also have a clinic across from each other. So I can hear him talk to patients. He steals my patients. The problem with being a Junior and the Third, they think the Third is Junior. So they come to see Junior, but they end of with the Third. I told them, "If they come from Savannah, Ga., to see Champ Baker, they have come to see me, not my son." (Laughter) But that is not how it works out. He has a good practice. I am very proud -- I am proud because he is a good doc. Same thing about Dr. Hughston, Andrews, they were good people-physicians. And that is what my son has become.
I don't want to lose one thing about Andrews. Jimmy left in '86 to start his own thing and he has been pretty successful.
How would this clinic be different if Dr. Andrews had not left in '86?
It would be as big as anywhere. When Jimmy left, he had already operated on Jack Nicklaus -- I am going to drop names, but the names have already been in the paper. We had seen all big-name baseball players. We had our own hospital. At that time, having a sports hospital was big news. If Jimmy would have stayed, you would like to think we would have maintained our educational program. We would still have been in Columbus, but I think we would have branched out to satellites a little quicker -- I don't how big it would have gotten because we are pretty big now. But he is sports and I think we would have kept more a sports focus versus now we are an orthopedic clinic with trauma, total spine, replacements and sports. I still do sports.
You don't know. Jimmy has been gone almost 30 years.
Is he the most renowned sports physician in the country?
He is right now, ... What if Andrews would have stayed? Don't know. Would have been real interesting. It didn't hurt us ultimately. We have a good practice. Jimmy has a good practice in Birmingham and a little in Pensacola.
How did you keep your friendship with Dr. Andrews?
He asked me to join him when he left. We had a long discussion one day. At the time, we thought alike about athletes and treatment. At the time, Dr, Hughston really didn't believe in arthroscopy. He did not think it was going to last. In the mid '70s it was brand new. Dr. Hughston felt people who couldn't operate would use the scope. He was 65 and he didn't want to embrace it. You wanted laser surgery, at that time he would lay you down and operate on you. That was his laser surgery. He was big on the knife and anatomy -- knowing your anatomy. An arthroscopist doesn't really have to know your anatomy.
Don't tell me that.
(Laughter) They know the anatomy. They don't have to operate to fix ligaments any more. It is all arthroscopy. When I came along, we used to meet every Saturday morning to dissect knees. I know my knee anatomy very well. But you don't need it for surgery. But he felt the guys who did scopes couldn't operate. And he was not correct in that at all.
Andrews and I were together. He scoped. I scoped. We sort of thought alike about this. We had a commonality. I left Doctors (Hospital) and went to St. Francis where he was practicing. We did arthroscopy at the same place. We were treating athletes alike. When he left, it was sort of rocky. It was he and Dr. Hughston. It wasn't he and I. We had a long talk one day about coming over there with him. I said, "Let me see what happens here. I am not ready to move." I really thought I would benefit from his leaving. But it was pretty tough being an Andrews friend for the first year.
Did you make the right decision?
If you look at the end of the day, yes. You can question it, here and there. Columbus is a great place to raise a family and to live. We like it here. I am from Louisiana and my wife is from northern Florida and we like Columbus. For me and what I have been able to do -- I have been pretty successful in the sports field, and I might have done it in Birmingham, but I could not have done more -- I have done all I can do.
How old are you?
I will be 68 next month.
Are you ...
... Two more years. I figure 70 is a good time. I have outlived my dad. My dad died at 66 of a stroke. My son has his own practice, There is a certain time to leave. I am no longer the leader of the clinic. I am not taking from anybody else. He has his own practice. I want to be able to enjoy .. you get stiff in the morning at our age when you get up and move around. We want to be able to do some traveling. I am four days a week here now, which means you do five days work in four days. I take off Fridays.
How many surgeries have you done in your lifetime?
I have been operating here for 32 years and was doing 500 a year -- whatever that is -- 15,000, I guess.
And you go from the shoulder to the ankle, right?
I am about half-and-half shoulder and elbow. I do hips. I do knees. I have sort of quit doing ankles. We've got a couple of young guys who are good at that. I found my niche when arthroscopy came. I can still operate on an open knee. I think Dr. Hughston is wrong. You can do arthroscopy and be a surgeon.
What are you most proud of?
My family. Professional? I think I have respect of my peers. I have had some honors that are singular honors. I think I have the respect of my patients, I think. A good reputation is the hardest thing to get and the easiest thing to lose.
When it is all said and done, I think they will say, "He is a good doc and he did a good job, and he was a gentleman taking care of me." I am proud of that because that is the legacy you pass to your kids.
And the second thing is I have trained a lot of orthopedic surgeons -- and I am proud to have trained my son. We've got two daughters we are very proud of. One is a physical therapist who lives in New York -- can't afford New York, lives in Brooklyn -- and Kate is in San Francisco and works in marketing. She has a daughter -- in fact, my granddaughter turns 1 today. My wife and I have been married 43 years come August.
What is the difference in what you do and what a cancer doctor does?
A cancer doctor, statistically, is going to lose a lot of them. He deals with disease that eventually is going to win. Not always, but ... Take Andy Pippas. His job is he treats until the last day -- he never gives up. He is pumping his medicine until the last day to give hope. I don't have that problem where I know I am going to lose the patient. The patient may not come back and see me.
My success is you go back to playing and your knee or shoulder does well.
I just got a card from the dad of a young man who graduated from the Military Academy. He's from Macon and I operated on his son three different times. The last time, he hurt his shoulder and could not pass his PT test.
He sent me a card four years later and remembered I was helpful in getting him in the Military Academy. That is a reward. Andy Pippas treats a person well, he will get a card four years later, but by and large those people are not there four years later.
What is the toughest part of being married to you?
(Laughter) You would have to ask my wife. I am unpredictable some times. They say I change my mind. I think it is just changing your options. I sort of say one thing and do something else. I don't remember names any more. I am always giving the wrong name. They understand. I think you would say that is sort of part of the fun of it -- the unpredictability. I am always up, though. The glass is always half full.
Too much so. She says your tombstone will say: "It'll be all right." If you look at life right, it'll be all right. You have got to be positive. It is a tough world out there. And if you don't have an attitude you can make it better, and you don't contribute, you have not done your job -- which is to make the place better than you found it. And, here, I think I have made the clinic better than it was. I think Dr. Hughston would be proud.
For someone who is an optimist, your job can be tough. People don't come to you because they feel good, right?
My job is to give them hope. Everybody I see has a problem. ... I got 50 people tomorrow, Everyone has a problem. If you are not upbeat on every one, then you haven't helped them that day. They go home and say, "The doctor said it is the worst one he has ever seen and I will never recover." That is not what I say. I say, "We can fix this. You will be fine." I am not always right. But I have a lot of experience and I know what will work and what doesn't work.
Job: Surgeon; Chairman of the Board, The Hughston Foundation; Director, Hughston Sports Medicine Fellowship Program
Education: Bolton High School, Alexandria, La., 1964; Louisiana State University, B.S., 1968; LSU Medical School, 1972
Family: Wife, Sue Anne Baker; Children Champ L. Baker III, M.D. and wife Karin of Columbus; Kate Baker Aghevli and her husband Kaveh of San Francisco; Sarah Baker of New York; Grandchildren Champ (Lee) Baker IV, Caroline Baker and Adeleh Aghevli