Bobby Jenks Interview: A ‘Concurrent’ Curveball

Bobby Jenks Interview: A ‘Concurrent’ Curveball

By | May 18, 2020

Portrait By Robert Beck


“Overlapping and concurrent surgeries form a continuum of simultaneous surgical practice in which a single surgeon has two or more patients in operating rooms at the same time. Undeniably, in an acute life-or-limb-threatening presentation, it may be essential for a surgeon to care for two individual patients simultaneously. These situations are different from scheduled elective surgery. concurrent surgery is defined as the attending surgeon not being present for ‘critical and key’ portions of a procedure.” – Source: The Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery

WHILE BASEBALL IS A TEAM SPORT, it’s also a strategic, one-on-one game-within-a-game where a pitcher, who is on defense, challenges an offensive player—the hitter—pitch by pitch. Ball, strike, hit, out, etc.

Especially for pitchers who throws “gas,” meaning they can hurl a 5-ounce baseball close to 100 mph or on rare occasion faster than that, one throw can change a career. The risk of injury is omnipresent in baseball and sports in general, which are currently on hiatus because of COVID-19 social–distancing practices.

It’s a risk for a team, of course, although organizations generally take out insurance policies on their highest-paid star players in case of injury. Case in point: Outside of a one-game farewell at the end of the 2018 season, the former New York Mets’ All-Star third basemen David Wright had to stop playing in 2016 because of injuries.

While the Mets still have to pay some of the remaining money owed him from a restructured eight-year contract Wright signed in 2012, they weren’t on the hook for the full remaining dollars over the last few years of the contract because of insurance. It’s complicated.

But Injuries can be a bigger risk for a player whose future earnings could be in jeopardy if they can’t continue to play at the level they did before the injury or they can’t continue to play at all.

Just ask Bobby Jenks. Jenks was a pitcher who started his Major League career with the Chicago White Sox in 2005. He was called up from the Minors in July 2005, and shortly thereafter would become the team’s closer—meaning he would be brought in to try to get the last few outs to win a baseball game—for a team that was World Series bound. In fact, he threw the final pitch in the final game of the 2005 World Series getting the save and bringing Chicago its first baseball championship in over three generations—88 years to be exact.

It was a dream season for sure and the start of a promising career as well. He followed up his successful start by making the All-Star team the next two seasons. He even set a then-Major League record along the way by retiring 41 consecutive batters, over several games, without anyone reaching base by walk, hit or error.

Six years later, in his first year as a member of the Boston Red Sox, his career came to a screeching halt in New York. It was a pitch in Yankee Stadium. He immediately knew something was wrong, but he didn’t know that it would be his last pitch as a professional athlete.

Jenks was forced to retire after playing just 19 games that year. What he thought was an arm injury turned out to be a back problem instead, one that required surgery. It was a simple procedure, or so he was told, that would allow him to start rehabbing the injury by the following spring and back to pitching in regular-season games around midsea-son. Instead, that “simple” operation almost cost him his life.

What he didn’t know at the time was his doctor was also operating on another patient as part of what is known as a concurrent surgery.

He first detailed his harrowing experience in a Players’ Tribune article titled “Scar Tissue” that was published in December 2019, seven months after he settled his lawsuit with the doctor and hospital for $5.1 million. He recently spoke with Spark about what occurred and his hope for mandatory informed consent prior to any concurrent surgeries.

Spark: So, as a baseball player, how do you balance risk in terms of, say you’re not feeling well one day and you think to yourself, ‘Should I go out there and do this for the team and the fans vs. what’s best for my personal interest and career?’ How do players deal with that?
Bobby Jenks: It’s a difference between knowing when you’re sore or when you’re hurt. That’s where that lines really comes in. I mean, guys can play through soreness and through some pain, but when you know you’re hurt, that’s the difference.

Spark: Let’s talk about your story. When did you know you were hurt?
Jenks: It was one of those things where it wasn’t, I mean it was soreness but it wasn’t painful yet. Because I was still, I went through my pregame warm-ups during the game, but it was just one of those things that happened in the game that it was on that one pitch.

Spark: OK. So you wrote in the Players’ Tribune that it felt not like a knife, but there was a spoon digging into your back. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Jenks: Yeah. Because I’ve had injuries before, they were very sharp … like tingling, radiating. This was more of like a very deep and dull [pain]. It was extremely painful. … It was almost like somebody was trying to use a spoon or like a thumb, like that kind of a pressure, like a deep heavy pressure.

Spark: But originally you thought there was an issue with your arm rather than your back, right?
Jenks: Yeah, because when I was getting some of the radiating pain, it was underneath my left scapula, because at the time I didn’t know it was this compression being set on the nerves. So the nerves were shooting the pain elsewhere other than directly from my spine.

Spark: So after you come out of the game, what happens then?
Jenks: I just went down into the tunnel. I checked with more trainers. The Yankees’ doctor came over and was checking on me. I went inside into the training room. At that moment I wasn’t quite sure what was going on because we couldn’t diagnose it for a little while after that. So it was really at that point just going through what the possibilities were, what it could be and trying to narrow it down to where the problem is.

Spark: And so after all of the diagnostics, what did you find out that it was?
Jenks: So basically through my T5 through T8, it was kind of growing together. So the operation was supposed to be a decompression of my laminectomy. The best way I describe it is, you have tubes running through your spine that nerves can go through and they were closing together. And the idea was to go in there and make those holes bigger again to open up room for those nerves to run through there freely.

Spark: So let’s get into the day of the surgery. What did you think was going to happen?
Jenks: Well, at the time it was supposed to be just a very in and out [procedure], just a couple of hours, decompress two levels, and I was going to be ready by maybe end of spring training. … maybe come back around midseason. That was the game plan from Day One. I had no other thoughts than that at the time.

Spark: What went wrong?
Jenks: Well, a couple things went wrong. On the negligence side, we’ll save that for a minute, but just on the surgical side itself, what was supposed to be two levels that were decompressed, only one was done and it wasn’t done thoroughly. A sharp spike had been left in the area that penetrated my dural sac, which caused the spinal leak.

Spark: Actually, let’s back up a second. So the spinal leak, which you mentioned here, so you found out about that how long after the surgery, was that a day or two?
Jenks: No, no, this was, I was in Boston for the surgery and I flew home. Probably, I can’t remember the exact time. Maybe seven to 10 days later.

Spark: And so in the Players’ Tribune, it’s really dramatic. You have the story that you’re sitting on the couch and you basically say to yourself, ‘Who dumped water over me?’ Is that right?
Jenks: Yeah. Because that’s what it felt like. I mean that’s how much fluid had burst out of my back and just completely soaked the back of my tee shirt.

Spark: That’s so scary. All right, so let’s get back to the surgery. And what did you find out later that took place that caused the problem?
Jenks: Well, during my surgery it’s what’s known as concurrent surgery where one doctor is overseeing two surgeries at the same time and there was no informed consent. We were left in the dark. We had no knowledge of any of this going on. When I say we, I’m saying not only others who have gone through this in the past, but also the surgeon who had another patient in the room right next to me. He had no understanding of what was done, that any of this has happened either. So during my surgery somewhere he left in a rush. We can never get a full definitive answer out of the doctor during his depositions. So we can never get a full clear answer. But what we pieced together is, he was in a rush. He never completed the surgery. We don’t even know if it was him who actually did the surgery in the first place.

Spark: Do you know if the doctor was ever in communication with the Red Sox doctors? Did they ever talk about it?

Jenks: No, not that I’m aware of. No. Even after my incision blew open, me and my agent, we tried to contact the doc, the surgeon, who did my surgery for, I don’t know how long, we were trying to send emails, phone calls, one after another trying to get ahold of him.

Spark: So you have this fluid dripping down your back. Did you ever think of going to the ER immediately?
Jenks: Well yeah. I mean, that’s why I went to a clinic right next door to my house. I mean it was literally maybe a three-minute drive down the road, because I didn’t know what was going on. So I didn’t know if it was, because at the time I didn’t know it was spinal fluid. I didn’t know what was leaking. That’s why I wanted to go and see what was going on. That’s what the discharge paper says, ‘If any leaking happens, call immediately.’ … So I go to a clinic right down the street just to get some sort of medical answer on what was actually happening, and that’s when I found out it was spinal fluid and was sent to the ER.

Spark: So not many people know about concurrent surgeries. In a survey from 2017 on public perceptions of, they called it overlapping surgery, they said that there’s only 3.9% of respondents who even knew about it.
Jenks: Yeah, and see that’s where they like to trick us with the words because that’s what they try to use in my case as well, is overlapping. Which means that a surgeon can start a new surgery when my surgery was being closed. He can go into the other room and have somebody else close me up while he goes into the other room and starts a new one. And that’s a completely different thing of actual concurrent surgery, which is two patients going under the anesthesia at the same time.

Spark: So if this doctor had an emergency patient and he came to you and said, ‘You know what, I have this emergency patient. Would you mind if I did a concurrent surgery?’ What would you have said?
Jenks: At this point I had been waiting, because I got hurt [around] mid-season. I had gotten a pulmonary embolism, so that’s why my surgery was pushed off until the middle of December. So at this point I had been waiting months. So I mean I could have waited another day. I would have said, I would’ve happily said, ‘No. Take care of the emergency surgery. I can wait one more day to have you solely work on me.’ And going into a surgery, I think that’s what we all hope for is knowing that you’ve got 100% of [your doctor’s] focus and effort on you. I mean, going under any surgery is dangerous in the first place, but I mean, he was working on my spine where it was a very delicate surgery that many things could go wrong. And you would expect and hope that you’re going to somebody who is going to dedicate that 100% to you at that time.

Spark: So what are you doing these days? Are you healthy? Do you feel OK now?
Jenks: For the most part, yeah. I can live a normal life. There’s some things that I’m limited on. I’ll never be 100%, but that just comes with everything that I’ve gone through. But minus that I’m doing very well. I can do a lot of things that still make me happy.

Spark: Can you still throw the hook [a curveball]?
Jenks: [Laughs] Unfortunately, the most I can do is maybe throw some BP to the kids.


James Tehrani is Spark’s editor-in-chief. He is an award-winning writer based in the Chicago area.

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