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Surfing Doctor Rides With Patients

Orthopedic surgeon Adam Sassoon does whatever it takes to aid his patients in their recovery process.
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June 9, 2022
Dr. Adam Sassoon, left, an orthopedic surgeon at UCLA Health, wraps a surfing session with one of his double knee-replacement patients, 72-year-old Robert Lombard, on the north side of Huntington Beach Pier in Huntington Beach on Sunday, April 17, 2022. (Photo by Joshua Sudock)

Orthopedic surgeon Adam Sassoon does whatever it takes to aid his patients in their recovery process. In the case of 76-year-old patient Robert Lombard, motivation came in the form of a promise to surf.

“I always try and connect with my patients on whatever that is [they love], and so for Rob, that was surfing” Sassoon, who practices medicine at UCLA Health, told the Journal. 

Lombard, who is 32 years clean and sober, started surfing at age 62. He still recalls the first time he stood up on a surfboard, seeing the snow on the mountains, as he “walked” on water. 

“It was the same feeling I had when I had 30 days of sobriety,” Lombard said. “There was something spiritual about it.”

Lombard loved to surf, but his knees were giving out. It got to a point where surgery was his only option, and he didn’t want just any surgeon to do his knee replacements. Even after he met Sassoon, Lombard was a little nervous, so the doctor offered the surfing as incentive and encouragement.

Sassoon comes by his commitment to healing and healing the world, tikkun olam, rightfully. He is the grandson of Joseph and Kitty Sassoon, prominent Beverly Hills Jews who helped start Congregation Kahal Joseph in 1959, soon after they immigrated  from India and Iraq. Joseph and Kitty passed away in January 2021 within 12 hours of each other from  COVID-19.

“I have a lot of love for my grandparents, and it’s easy for me to transfer those feelings to some of my [elderly] patients when I take care of them,” he said. “I understand the hardships of aging, and I would say it’s also a source of empathy for me when I care for my patients.”

Sassoon, who is committed to fostering more equality and diversity in the joint replacement and orthoedic surgery arena, is involved in the American Association of Hip and Knee Surgeons (AAHKS). He does a lot of work improving the disparities he sees in orthopedic surgery, and is co-chair for the Diversity Advisory Board within AHKAS. 

Sassoon, who serves on the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion committee within the UCLA Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, said,“I also present research on a national and international level looking at care, delivery and disparities as it relates to the surgeries that we do… That is a definite outgrowth of the values that I have been instilled in me by my family and as a Jew.” 

It took a while between Lombard’s successful surgeries and the surfing excursion. Lombard had his right knee operation in July 2021 and the left done in November 2021. Then, he had a bout of COVID on Christmas, and his physical therapy progress backslid. Still, he knew his return to surfing was on the horizon. He had something to work towards, and chronicled his journey via Instagram at @theoldestgrom.

“He would send me videos during his PT session, showing me how he’s doing leg presses and balance exercises and all these things,” Sasson said. 

A week before their spring surf date, Lombard went to literally test the waters. It did not go well. 

“I thought I was going to drown,” he said. “I had no confidence. I couldn’t get up. The water, it was too big.”

Lombard went back to physical therapy. Instead of two days a week, he went every day, so he would be as prepared as possible. 

Then, on an early Sunday morning in April, Lombard and Sassoon took to the water in Huntington Beach. Surfing success. The same emotions washed over Lombard, as they did on that very first surf.

Sassoon said the best part of his job is taking people, who are crippled by pain, arthritis or injury, and getting them moving again and back to the things they love.

Sassoon said the best part of his job is taking people, who are crippled by pain, arthritis or injury, and getting them moving again and back to the things they love, whether it’s dancing, going to the grocery store, bowling, golf or surfing. 

“Orthopedic surgery is one of the branches of medicine where patients come in and you can see a demonstrable improvement in them after their surgical procedure,” he said. “It’s instant gratification and it’s an instant affirmation of the time that you physically put into their body with your hands.”

Like so many of Dr. Sassoon’s patients, Lombard’s life will never be the same.

“He’s more than a mensch, he’s a spiritual being,” Lombard said. “What he did for me and what he does for human beings … he lets people walk again. And I am ever so grateful for that.”

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