A football on a field

In 2015, the Pittsburgh Passion lost their longtime team physician when Tanya Hagen, MD, died unexpectedly at age 45.

Dr. Hagen was a sports medicine specialist at UPMC and the first female primary care physician hired by UPMC Sports Medicine. She had served many Pittsburgh professional, college, and high school teams. She was a vocal proponent of gender equality in sports.

UPMC Sports Medicine didn’t hesitate in appointing another team physician to succeed Dr. Hagen.

Treating Female Sports Injuries

Our team physicians for the Passion see a lot of ACL injuries, just as they would expect to see from male football players. But there are more emotional aspects to the injuries of female professional athletes.

Many of the players hold daytime jobs and have families in addition to their positions on the team. For female athletes, it’s also extremely important to consider hormonal changes, which potentially put them at higher risk of injury, and issues related to dehydration.

UPMC Sports Medicine experts see the same injuries between male and female professional athletes. However, the mechanisms of the injuries are often different.

For men, we usually see contact injuries — some sort of acute trauma from contact. For women, who are likely to be older, there is typically more of a degenerative component on top of the injury.

The team physician attends local practices, scrimmages, and games. They travel to away games at their own expense. Being there gives the team a consistent medical presence and perspective on all on-field player injury decisions.

Elevating the Stature of the Team and League

UPMC shows a high level of attention to female athletes’ health. That kind of attention from a major sports medicine program was rarely seen among other teams in the early years of the Women’s Football Alliance, the league in which the Passion plays, says Teresa Conn, the Passion’s owner and head coach. Legendary Steelers player Franco Harris is a team co-owner.

“Really, UPMC Sports Medicine has been here for the Passion since day one — our exhibition year in 2002 and our first season in 2003,” says Teresa, a former Passion player. “The fact that we had an athletic trainer from UPMC for all our practices and games really separated us from the pack from the perspective of player safety. We were ahead of the curve, and it set the bar for the entire league.

“Now, they all have a relationship with a medical program, and that has elevated the stature of the league. The players really appreciate the level of attention we’ve been given.”

Passion practices and scrimmages often take place at off-hours due to field availability.

“We might have late-night practices that start at 11 p.m. and run to 1 a.m.,” Teresa says. “The athletic trainers and physicians are out there with us in the cold in January and in the heat in July.”

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A ‘Melting Pot’ of Players

“It’s been intriguing to work with the Passion because there’s such a range of ages, sizes, body types, ethnicities, and day jobs among the players,” says Maddison Miller, the graduate student athletic trainer for the Passion.

Maddison is working on her master’s degree in sports medicine at Pitt. She worked as an athletic trainer for a Division III college football team and a women’s rugby team in the past.

“The experience has solidified what I want to do for my career,” she says. “This is a completely unique atmosphere, and it’s helping me grow as a clinician. We focus on the whole athlete — the psychological and mental aspects — in addition to the physical injuries, and we have to take their day jobs into consideration when we’re making our rehabilitation plans.

“I can really relate to these players because they’re doing it on the side as a second job — just like me.”

Says Teresa: “The team really is a melting pot. We’ve got young, old, Black, white, gay, straight, early-career, nearing retirement, college and high school sports standouts, and some who have never competed. We’ve got state troopers and firefighters, teachers and lawyers, bartenders and health care workers — and we’re all working toward a common goal. It’s built on respect of self, respect for others, competition, friendship, and fun.”

Having Freddie Fu on the Team

The Passion also saw tremendous support from Freddie Fu, MD, chair of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and UPMC. Dr. Fu, a legend in the sports medicine field, died in September 2021.

“The players were just so grateful to Dr. Fu for always being so supportive,” Teresa says. “When our players saw him and knew he was their doctor, it did something for our whole team’s perspective. When we would text him with an issue, he’d respond immediately. He’d get our players in for appointments quickly. It was just unbelievable, really.”

Some players became close to Dr. Fu and his staff because they saw them so often at practices, games, and at the UPMC Freddie Fu Sports Medicine Center while rehabbing an injury.

Lisa Horton, a quarterback who retired after 17 years in the game and now coaches for the Passion, had that experience. In her day job, she is vice president of operations, membership, and healthy living for the YMCA of Greater Pittsburgh.

“Dr. Fu did my ACL surgery in July 2008,” Lisa says. “I rehabbed at UPMC for over six months. They had me ready to play again the following spring. It’s a huge deal for us to have the UPMC docs and athletic training staff travel with us. It’s a great comfort and gives us peace of mind having them there.”

Just months before his death in September 2021, Dr. Fu shared that he’s always had a passion for the Passion.

“It was incredible to be a part of their first championship and to support them,” Dr. Fu said. “They are the most diverse team in Pittsburgh sports, and they’re so welcoming and encouraging for other women to take part. I feel privileged to be taking care of them.”

The 2021 Season

The Passion were conditioning for the 2020 season that spring when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The pandemic halted, then suspended their entire season. The league enjoyed a modified 2021 season.

Details on the 2022 season are still coming together, but UPMC Sports Medicine plans to be there for all of it.

Visit the Pittsburgh Passion website to learn more about the team, the players, and their upcoming season.

 

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .

About Sports Medicine

An athletic lifestyle carries the potential for injury. Whether you’re an elite athlete or a weekend warrior, UPMC Sports Medicine can help. If you are looking to prevent, treat, or rehabilitate a sports injury, our multidisciplinary team of experts can help you get back into the game. If you are seeking to improve your athletic performance, we can work with you to meet your goals. We serve athletes and active people of all ages and experience levels. Our goal is to help you keep doing what you love. Visit our website to find a specialist near you.