Feeling your pain

Baran Onder’s experience as a college athlete aids him in his career as sports-medicine physician

Dr. Baran Onder in his offfice at Argyll Medical Group.

Dr. Baran Onder in his offfice at Argyll Medical Group.

photo by kyle delmar

If you’ve ever suffered an injury from physical overexertion or athletic activity, Dr. Baran Onder feels your pain. Onder was a college basketball player, and during his playing career he suffered several injuries, including stress fractures in his lower leg that led him to miss the bulk of a season.

“I spent a lot of time in the training room with a couple doctors who helped me get back playing,” Onder said in a recent phone interview. They also inspired his career path: He’s now a sports-medicine physician, treating patients of all ages, with a variety of conditions.

The field of sports medicine dates back more than 50 years, but it’s grown beyond jocks and gyms. Onder sees kids with sprains, adults with repetitive-motion injuries and seniors with osteoarthritis.

Onder considers himself a “non-operative orthopedic” doctor. He completed his residency in family medicine, then a fellowship in sports medicine, so he’s not trained to perform surgical procedures like “operative” orthopedists. Instead, he treats with medication, nutrition and therapy.

“Obviously, if I feel a patient needs surgery, I’ll refer [him or her] to an orthopedic surgeon,” Onder explained, “but a lot of times there are ways to avoid surgery for a long period of time—or altogether—so they can remain active.”

Onder, who is 31 years old, played high-school basketball and volleyball before focusing on basketball at Case Western Reserve University, an NCAA Division III institution in Cleveland, Ohio. He was a 6-foot-5 power forward and center, often asked to guard players two to four inches taller and significantly heavier than he.

During his junior year, he decided to become a doctor because, he said, “I liked science and I liked the idea of being able to use science to help people.” He stayed at Case Western for medical school as well as his residency.

He didn’t go far for his fellowship, either, spending a year at the Cleveland Clinic. The facility features around 1,000 practitioners in an array of specialties, and serves as the sports-medicine clinic for local college and professional teams such as the Cleveland Cavaliers of the NBA, Cleveland Browns of the NFL and Cleveland Indians of Major League Baseball.

Onder didn’t get the chance to meet LeBron James, the Cavaliers all-star who moved to the Miami Heat before Onder began his fellowship. Nonetheless, he met—and treated—a number of pro sports figures through the Cleveland Clinic.

“It was kind of neat to hang out in locker rooms and meet the athletes,” Onder said. Even more than that, he added, “it was really a great opportunity to learn from practitioners of different types of disciplines.”

So how did he get from Cleveland to Chico? Through the power of the Internet.

After completing his fellowship, Onder spent several months working part time in a hospital emergency room while looking for a family practice or sports-med position. He found an online listing for a job in Chico.

“I thought, ‘Wow, I’ve never heard of Chico,’” he recalled, so he did a Web search on the city. He found a number of favorable postings, so he decided to apply.

The job ended up going to one of his medical-school friends, Chico native Dr. Brian Furst, but a physician recruiter remembered Onder when a primary-care sports-medicine position came open in the Argyll Medical Group.

Onder and his fiancée, Gretchen Klein, visited for an interview and decided to stay. Klein now teaches yoga at Elevate Power Yoga on Mangrove Avenue, where Onder is one of her students for a handful of classes a week.

“It’s really an outstanding workout,” he said, praising how yoga enhances core strength and stamina. “I’m able to do things in basketball that I might not be able to do if not for yoga.”

The couple also bicycle and hike in Bidwell Park, and Onder regularly plays basketball at In Motion Fitness.

“I love athletics,” Onder said. “I’ve been a fan of sports since growing up. It helped form who I am today. Athletics are a great sublimation of the competitive drive, and exercise is one of the best medicines there are to make people feel better.”

Still, injury lingers as a risk to anyone who’s athletically active. Asked if there were any sure-fire ways to avoid injury, Onder replied that there is no one-size-fits-all prescription. Every person is different when it comes to genetic and mechanical causes of injury.

That’s where sports medicine comes in. An achy patient can receive X-rays, scans and a diagnosis before making the mistake Onder made in college by playing through the pain. The physician can suggest proper nutrition for particular activities. Onder or a physical therapist can help an athlete tailor workouts to minimize stress on the joints.

Currently, less than a third of Onder’s patients consult him for sports medicine. Most come to see him as a family practitioner. Still, he has plenty of opportunity to practice the medicine he loves.

“It’s great to work with people who are motivated to be healthy and are competitive, working hard to get better to do what they enjoy,” Onder said. “Sometimes in primary care, people get down on themselves, and it’s hard to motivate them. In sports medicine, you’re dealing with a motivated group of people, and that’s uplifting at the end of the day.”