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A behind the court look at the VCU Sports Medicine Clinic’s efforts to patch up players and train the next generation

As the VCU Rams men’s basketball team continues to make strides on the court, medical professionals on the sidelines ensure student-athletes thrive.

The two men are on a VCU basketball court, Thomas is sitting down while Seth is standing. Both are smiling towards the camera. Beside Thomas Loughran, M.D, is his mentee turned colleague, Seth Cheatham, M.D., who would eventually take over Loughran’s duties as medical director for VCU Athletics. (Parker Michels-Boyce)

By Erin Egan

In 2011, when the VCU men’s basketball team made its storybook ascent to the NCAA Final Four, the athletes became household names. But, unknown to the millions watching, on the sidelines sat one orthopaedic surgeon and VCU School of Medicine alumnus who’d contributed mightily to the team’s success.

Thomas Loughran, M.D., the founding director of the VCU Sports Medicine Clinic, had repaired the injuries of many student-athletes over the course of 40 years, including those on the court. Beside him was his mentee turned colleague, Seth Cheatham, M.D., who would eventually take over Loughran’s duties as medical director for VCU Athletics.

“That was such a great experience for me professionally,” Cheatham said. “It’s still by far and away the highlight of my career – to be there with Tom at the Final Four.”

Cheatham trained under Loughran, as did hundreds of other surgeons who’ve gone on to successful careers in sports medicine. Loughran fostered a family atmosphere among his residents that few forget. And they’ve extended his influence across the country, a team of physicians educated in a hands-on style, committed to their patients’ outcomes.

“He is still the only orthopaedic surgeon I know who would personally call every patient that he operated on to see if they were doing OK,” Cheatham said. “He did so many things the right way.”

On the forefront of an emerging specialty

Arriving on the MCV Campus in the early 1970s, medical student Loughran was influenced by John Cardea, M.D., the chief of orthopaedics at the time, and Gerardo Mendez-Picon, M.D., a vascular surgeon.

“I enjoyed surgery and that’s the reason I gravitated toward him,” Loughran said of Mendez-Picon. “And Dr. Cardea introduced me to orthopaedics – ultimately I went into that because of him.”

After medical school, Loughran completed his internship at the University of Florida, returned to Richmond for his orthopaedics residency and completed a yearlong sports medicine fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania. He then came back to the MCV Campus to work with Cardea and Robert Adelaar, M.D., in the orthopaedics program, which, at the time, was housed under surgery.

“Starting out, we didn’t have our own department,” Loughran said. “Dr. Cardea formed it. We all had to pitch in to do that.”

Loughran, who had witnessed various injuries when he played basketball in high school and as a college freshman, knew that orthopaedics would be a fascinating field. He shifted his focus to sports medicine as the specialty began to blossom.

“If you like sports and you like dealing with motivated people who want to get better, it’s a great job,” he said. “That’s one of the things that attracted me to it. And Dr. Cardea and Dr. Adelaar always supported me.”

In the mid-1980s, as the only sports medicine physician in the orthopaedic department, Loughran’s hectic schedule included treating patients and taking care of athletes for several local high schools, as well as VCU, Virginia Union University, Virginia State University and Richmond’s minor league baseball team.

“A lot of times, I would be at a football game, then a soccer match and then a baseball game all in one day,” he said. “It was a lot of hours out of the hospital, but it was a lot of fun at the same time.”

Thousands of patients have come through the clinic doors — first at Franklin Street Gym and then, in 2001, at the new VCU Sports Medicine Clinic. Injuries ranged from ankles to knees to hips to shoulders to necks. Loughran recalls three Virginia Union football players who each suffered knee dislocations.

“We operated and they came back to playing football,” he said. “That was always a big thing for us to try and get them back.”

Loughran’s skills took him all over the world, where he lectured about sports medicine in Zimbabwe, Scotland, Ukraine and Guatemala. He also served as team doctor for events such as the Goodwill Games in St. Petersburg, Russia.

“It was nice to see how sports medicine people worked all over the world,” he said. “That’s one of the things about orthopaedics, you learn something new every day if you want to. It’s always evolving.”

In addition to his other duties, Loughran continued to educate residents. He calls it “the best part of the job.”

After his retirement from the medical school’s full-time faculty in February 2022, Loughran joined the Richmond VA Medical Center, where he now works a “lighter” four-day-a-week schedule.

“I still get to work with the residents and I like taking care of the veterans,” he said. “It’s a good way to use my expertise and take care of people.

Team players on and off the court

Cheatham – now the VCU Athletics medical director – moved to Richmond twice on the strength of the orthopaedics program at VCU.

“It’s a residency that really prepares you to go out in the world and be an extremely competent orthopaedic surgeon,” he said.

Loughran stood out as one of the program’s premier educators, taking time to guide residents and help them improve their skills.

Loughran’s bedside manner was legendary as well. If he was running behind while seeing patients, they never seemed to mind because he spent quality time with each one, Cheatham said.

After residency, Cheatham completed a fellowship in Kentucky before returning to the VCU Sports Medicine Clinic. The transition from Loughran’s former resident to colleague was seamless.

“Tom was always so welcoming,” Cheatham said. “And he and I complemented each other very well.”

They shared clinical responsibilities as well as the demanding work of taking care of athletes on local high school sports teams and colleges. It was Loughran who suggested Cheatham travel with the VCU men’s basketball team in 2011, his first chance to do so. Cheatham cleared his schedule and went along for the ride.

Over the years, Loughran began to step back and more of the responsibilities of the VCU Sports Medicine Clinic fell to Cheatham, who tries to emulate his mentor’s dedication and willingness to do anything for anybody.

“If somebody had a problem and needed to be seen, the answer was always yes,” Cheatham said. “It doesn’t matter how busy you think you are. You always make time for the people who reach out and need you.”