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The nation’s surgeon has no intention of slowing down

Professor Sakari Orava performs his duties with the Ostrobothnian mentality

Hospital NEO’s Professor Sakari Orava is one of the most famous sports medicine surgeons in the world. He has operated on heads of state and top athletes – among them David Beckham and Haile Gebrselassie – and served as Chief Physician to the Finnish Olympic team in the years 1988–2000.

  Sakari tyopoydan aaressa
  “In the private health-care sector, we strive to create a personal rehabilitation plan for each patient. Patients need detailed, written instructions on how to proceed and begin rehabilitation after they have been operated on,” Sakari Orava says.

Although Orava has earned a reputation in the public eye as a world-class orthopedic surgeon, many people do not realize that he spends a great deal of his time at the hospital with patients who are not professional athletes.

“Most of my patients are regular people with regular conditions. Today, for example, I saw 14 patients and only four were professional athletes. Their background is not what’s important: a doctor approaches all patients in the same way,” says Orava.

“I see this work as a way that we surgeons, when we succeed in our task, can influence people’s quality of life. And they often show their gratitude in the form of thanks, cards and flowers or someone remembers us at Christmas. Sure, it’s a nice feeling,” he says and smiles.

Moving ahead one year at a time

Orava, who turns 70 this year, has performed over 25,000 operations in the span of his career. His résumé includes roughly 700 published medical articles, publications and international conference lectures. Orava says he currently works “only 90 percent of the workweek” – which, in reality, still means more than the typical 8-hour workday.

“I always work one year at a time. Then I contemplate my future again, and whether my health is standing up. There’s an Ostrobothnian saying: ‘He who doesn’t work, shouldn’t eat either.’ I think that describes me well,” says Orava.

Orava is the proud grandfather to two grandchildren, and a smile spreads across his face as he talks about his two-year-old grandson’s interest in golf. Orava is also an avid reader, devouring medical literature, biographies and crime novels. He considers research work a hobby and is actively involved in his congregation through a spiritual organization.

Point of departure: Kokkola

  Malja sairaalalle
  A toast to the new hospital. Sakari Orava inaugurated Hospital NEO together with NEO’s Medical Director Jussi Rantanen (left) and Minister Alexander Stubb (center).
“Working at NEO is a great and interesting opportunity,” says Orava.

Sakari Orava was born in Kokkola in 1945. He graduated with the degree of Medical Doctor from Oulu University in 1972, becoming a licensed physician. He became a specialist in general surgery in 1977, a specialist in orthopedic surgery in 1980, a specialist in sports medicine in 1986, and did his PhD thesis in medicine and surgery in 1980.

In 1984 he was appointed senior lecturer in orthopedics and traumatology at the University of Oulu, senior lecturer in sports traumatology at the University of Turku in 1995, and honorary professor at the University of Murcia in Spain in 2000. In 2001, the President of Finland bestowed the honorary title of Professor on Orava.

Orava was assistant chief surgeon at the Keski-Pohjanmaa Central Hospital from 1977 to 1986, and was one of the founders of the Medirex clinic in Kokkola. He has an extensive career working in private hospitals in Turku over the past three decades. His decision to move his practice to Hospital NEO in spring 2011 was, according to him, an easy one to make.

“NEO has a solid concept with a focus on the essential: sports medicine surgery, orthopedics and traumatology. The hospital doesn’t need to be a mixed-bag store – it makes sense to concentrate on selected areas. I have also known NEO’s other surgeons for a long time: they have been my protégés, if you will. The chance to work at NEO was a great and interesting opportunity. It was an easy decision to continue my work here, with a team I was familiar with,” states Orava.

Orava’s special area of interest lies in injuries of the lower extremities, i.e. from the hip down, which are very common for athletes. Typical injuries consist of meniscal tears to the knee, ankle ligament injuries and Achilles tendon injuries, which are particularly common among athletes.  

Career choice prompted by skilled hands

  Sakari ja Veronica
  Italian endurance runner Veronica Inglese went to NEO for an operation. As Orava is quick to point out, however: “Most of my patients are regular people with regular conditions.” 

For Orava, pursuing a medical career was the clear choice early on. In school, he was interested in biology and liked doing things with his hands: painting, sculpting and sketching. He was also active in sports, winning a gold medal in a national championship boxing event in the 54 kg weight class in 1962, and competing at both the national and international level in judo.

“I was a coach and the chairman of a judo club in Oulu back in my university days, and even back then I had to field a lot of questions about various pain-inducing conditions and ailments. In the early ‘70s, the third sports medicine clinic in Finland opened up in Oulu, and I worked there after I graduated. I was exposed to a lot then – basically to the entire spectrum of sports injuries.”

When arthroscopic surgery landed on Finland’s shores, Orava was working in Kokkola, which received the third arthroscopic machine in the country in 1978. Since that time, the level of skill in sports traumatology has advanced in leaps and bounds, and Orava has been a pioneer in its development, for example developing techniques used in corrective surgery for muscle tears.

“Finland is at the forefront of development in orthopedic day surgery – internationally as well – and this has taken place precisely in private-sector health-care circles. Compared to other Nordic countries, for example, Finland has performed the highest number of minimally invasive arthroscopic surgeries on athletes,” he points out.

Illustrator of medical publications

  Sakari muotokuvan kanssa
  A portrait of Sakari Orava was unveiled in March 2012 at NEO.

Orava’s early interest in painting, combined with his choice of career, led him to the illustration of medical publications. In March 2012, Orava released the book Käytännön urheiluvammat (A practical guide to sports injuries), which presents a comprehensive review of the principles of the research, treatment and rehabilitation of typical sports injuries.

“The characteristics of a surgeon include having good hand-eye coordination and the ability to perceive objects in 3D form. The drawings help explain how something is done in an entirely different way than simply with text,” says Orava.

The ink illustrations in the book are Orava’s own. He intends to someday return to the canvas.

“My oil paints have been stored away in a box for 30 decades; I haven’t had time to do everything I would have liked to do alongside my professional career. But I’m sure I will dig them up at some point, when it’s time for me to start working less,” says Orava with a smile.


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