Medic in the Mountains

Medic in the Mountains

It’s not every doctor who talks with awe about the morgue. Nor the M.D. who gets to her patients by skis. Andrea Saterbak does.

The 1992 Creighton School of Medicine graduate is among a select pool of consulting physicians who care for the men and women of the U.S. Ski Team. She’s been with them for a dozen World Cup races across Europe, including the most frightening of all — the annual Hahnenkamm downhill ski race in Kitzbüehel, Austria.

Skiers can reach speeds approaching 90 mph in its twisting, icy, historic two miles, which feature 85-percent grade slopes and a drop of 2,640 feet from the start — known by racers as “the morgue.”

“You’re in a nook at the top and can’t see the whole face of the mountain,” Saterbak says.

Just five seconds out of the gate, skiers come to the “Mausefalle,” a blind, 260-foot drop.

Skiers don’t see where they’re landing until they’re high in the air. Here and elsewhere, the mountain often wins.

In 1989, Canadian Brian Stemmle wiped out so badly that his pelvis was ripped open “like a book,” leading some to refer to his crash as “the Wishbone.” More recently, the mountain claimed World Cup gold medalist Hans Grugger of Austria, who was placed in an induced coma for two weeks and underwent brain surgery after crashing.

“For a male who does downhill to even compete on that hill and finish that course … they go from a rookie to a veteran,” Saterbak says. “It’s harrowing. It’s unbelievable.”

It’s a good idea to have a physician on hand. As U.S. skiers begin their descent, Saterbak waits at the top, ready to ski to them should they crash.

“I stand at the top and pray they get down, especially without any kind of head injuries,” she says. “When the last U.S. skier goes, I’m like, ‘Thank God.’

“I don’t feel that in a lot of other races.”

From Mountains to Medicine

Saterbak has some idea of what Kitzbüehel racers experience. Her parents started her in the sport as a kindergartener in the late 1960s growing up in Stillwater, Minn. At 13, she started skiing competitively and, after graduating from Stillwater Area High School in 1982, received a scholarship to ski at the University of Wyoming. She skied two years there before rupturing her Achilles tendon, twice, forcing her to quit competitive racing. (Wyoming won the team national championship the following year.)

The injury focused Saterbak on school. She earned a degree from Wyoming in 1988 then left the mountains for Omaha based on the recommendation of Robert Meisterling, MD’72, a Creighton graduate and co-founder of St. Croix Orthopaedics. His practice included a location in Saterbak’s hometown of Stillwater. She is glad for Meisterling’s nudge.

“They gave me an opportunity, and I’m so grateful,” Saterbak says. “That is the hardest part, getting that first step. It was unconditional caring for the student. I knew when I walked into the dean’s office they would understand any of the needs I had.

“The camaraderie I felt at Creighton with everyone coming in from California, the East Coast, Minnesota … we all kind of looked at each other and said, ‘This is going to be everyone together. Let’s form some bonds here.’ Everyone kind of pulled together for that class. It was a great experience.”

After graduating from Creighton, Saterbak completed her residency and internship in orthopaedic surgery at the University of Iowa. Then came a fellowship in orthopaedic sports medicine at the Steadman-Hawkins Clinic in Vail, Colo. — Alpine ski racing’s mecca in the United States. Through the clinic’s ties to the U.S. Ski Team, Saterbak made her first trip with the team, to Chile in 1997.

Her ties continue even though she’s back in Stillwater with St. Croix Orthopaedics. She’s one of six Creighton graduates there with Robert Meisterling; his sons Steven Meisterling, MD’03, and Michael Meisterling, MD’98; and Jessica Downes, MD’08, and Robert Knowlan, MD’93. The Meisterlings are something of a Creighton family. Robert met his wife, Janet (Knake), while an undergraduate, prior to medical school. Janet earned a business degree from Creighton in 1969, and their daughter Lori Meisterling holds a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree (2001) from Creighton. Robert has known Saterbak since she was in high school.

“Andrea was an excellent athlete,” Robert Meisterling recalls. “I probably operated on her three times — twice when she was in high school and once when she was out of college. She shadowed me in my clinic a number of times. When she applied to Creighton, I, of course, recommended her. Once she graduated, I encouraged her to return to Stillwater.  She is known across the Twin Cities for her work in sports medicine.”  

Saterbak, indeed, has made a name for herself. In 2013, she was named one of Minnesota Monthly’s Best Orthopaedic Doctors for Women. Twice she has received the Stillwater Gazette’s Reader Choice Award for Orthopaedic Surgeon. She provides care to local athletes at Stillwater Area High School, the University of Wisconsin-River Falls and the St. Paul Saints baseball team. (She also coaches her 12-year-old daughter’s soccer team.)

Still on the Slopes

But her love is on the slopes. She makes one trip with the U.S. Ski Team each year for up to 10 days. Her most recent trips have been to Croatia, Slovenia and Austria. During races, she’s on skis, ready to treat her team.

Knee injuries are common, of course. Some of them are catastrophic blowouts. Back pain and injuries also are common, as are fractures and concussions. It’s among the most demanding sports in the world with 38 body-pounding races from November to March.

“It’s like nothing else when you’re in Europe,” Saterbak says. “It’s a grind. But they do it for the love of the sport.”

Saterbak, too.