A little after 7 a.m., on a weekday in the Evanston Hospital Café, a neurosurgeon in light-blue scrubs and a white lab coat arrives, looking refreshed. He smiles. His smile turns his eyes into a Clint Eastwood squint, penetrating and Hollywood cool. He has two surgeries scheduled for today, the first beginning in about an hour. The lone surgery he had performed the day before lasted seven hours, no breaks. Dr. Julian Bailes takes a seat, having already had his favorite breakfast (apple, coffee) at home.
My early takeaway: at least one doctor eats an apple a day to keep the doctor away.
The Lake Forest resident and father of five (ages 13 to 20) knows exactly what he has to do next: field another series of questions from another journalist about Concussion, the movie starring Will Smith, Alec Baldwin, Albert Brooks and David Morse. Baldwin portrays Bailes in the film about the discovery of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) by Dr. Bennet Omalu (Smith’s role) and the quest to get the NFL to acknowledge the existence of CTE, a degenerative disease found in people who had absorbed repetitive head trauma, including sub-concussive hits that occur during practically every play in every football game at every level.
Go ahead, ask away, ask me anything, Bailes’ welcoming, patient expression declares. He gets an easy inquiry to kick things off, one about Baldwin. Baldwin, 57, has slicked-back hair. Bailes, 58, has slicked-back hair. Baldwin has a sturdy build. Bailes, owner of a fifth-degree black belt in martial arts, has a sturdy build. How long did it take the film’s casting director to look at a photo of Bailes and call Baldwin’s agent? A guess: not very.
“When I first met him, Alec said to me, ‘I know who you are,’ ” recalls Bailes, chairman of the department of neurosurgery and co-director of the NorthShore Neurological Institute, NorthShore University HealthSystem. “He had studied YouTube videos of people interviewing me to hear my voice, to get my accent down. I felt honored to be portrayed by him in the movie.
“Years ago,” the native of New Orleans adds, “people started telling me, ‘You look a lot like Alec Baldwin.’ ”
Bailes and Omalu, a native of Nigeria and a now the chief medical examiner of San Joaquin County in California, became medical teammates following the autopsy, conducted by Omalu, of former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster (Morse’s role in Concussion) in the Allegheny County Coroner’s Office in Pittsburgh. The NFL Hall of Famer was 50 and living in his pickup truck when he died in 2002. Bailes had served as a Steelers team doctor from 1989-99. Persistence led Omalu to determine that Webster had suffered from CTE. Bailes did some math, figuring Webster had endured close to 100,000 hits to his head during his football career.
“Mike played in a time when NFL teams normally practiced five times a week during the season,” Bailes says. “Each practice was hard, full of contact. Players back then couldn’t wait to play on Sundays, because the games weren’t as intense and hard-hitting as the practices were.”
The movie chronicles the efforts of Omalu and Bailes to make the NFL aware of, and accept some responsibility for, the long-term consequences of repetitive blows to the head. Suicides of former NFL players Junior Seau and Dave Duerson have been linked to CTE. Bailes has been a neurological consultant to the NFL Players Association since 1994 and heads, on a volunteer basis, the medical advisory committee for Pop Warner Youth Football.
“Science is often a process,” says Bailes, an all-state football player (safety/linebacker) in high school and a member of Northwestern State University (Natchitoches, Louisiana) football teams before a neck injury convinced him to stop playing the sport at 20. “With medical discoveries, there’s usually a saga to the journey. I told my wife [Colleen] this won’t be a fun journey, won’t be a pleasant journey, but it will be an important journey. My goal, all along, was never to hurt the sport of football; it was and still is to help make the game safer for players. There is still a lot more work to do.”
Omalu, a resident of Lodi, California, occasionally visits Bailes at Evanston Hospital. They work together there, catch up. Bailes says Omalu is “outgoing, engaging.” Bailes first met Smith near a red carpet in November, before the premiere of Concussion in Los Angeles. He says Smith “has no pretense.” He also says Concussion is “accurate.” Baldwin’s first appearance in the movie is set in Bailes’ office. Morse’s Webster, his health falling apart, enters the office. He is desperate for help, for relief, for the sight of a familiar face. The men embrace. Another moving scene depicts the crestfallen reaction of Smith’s Omalu to news that NFL owners wanted Bailes, not Omalu, to present research findings to the owners at a meeting held in Chicago in 2007.
Bailes’ favorite statistic is a small one and a significant one: 1 percent. Bailes’ Pop Warner medical advisory committee estimates that is how many Pop Warner youth football players, per season, suffer a concussion, thanks to the organization’s recent commitment to eliminate head-contact drills in practice. About 4,000 Pop Warner games are played across the country each weekend in the fall, Bailes notes.
“The sport of football is changing, evolving, getting safer, especially at the youth level,” Bailes, an uncle of University of Alabama reserve defensive back Nate Staskelunas, says. “As long as youth coaches follow the rules of their leagues and teach the game the right way, parents of young football players shouldn’t be concerned. Football, like soccer and lacrosse and hockey, is a contact sport. Collisions occur; risks are involved. Kids need to be sure they understand that and make sure it’s a sport they want to play. Football, I still believe, has a lot of benefits. Parents need to be sure their kids understand the risks involved in contact sports. Parents … many of us have taught our kids how to ride a bike, how to skateboard, how to snow ski and water ski. Risky activities, all of them.”
The International Olympic Committee plans to fly Bailes to Switzerland later this month. The committee wants him to consult it on ensuring the safety of athletes, notably boxers, ahead of the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. A doctor’s busy life will get busier.
Bailes finds time to spend with his children. He cherishes the time. There’s time, too, though not as much nowadays, to stay fit at Degerberg Academy of Martial Arts in Chicago. The discipline has been a part of his life for 30 years.
“I enjoy the physicality of martial arts, as well as all of the challenges,” Bailes says. “Martial arts and neurosurgery … they’re completely different when you think about them, one requiring a physical nature, the other a great deal of delicacy.”
It is 7:45 a.m., time for Bailes to excuse himself and exit the hospital café. He is needed elsewhere. A challenge, requiring delicacy, awaits him.