This starts a new series about the Top Doctors of Los Angeles. For the past thirty years, I’ve been interacting with doctors in the L.A. area and helping their patients rehabilitate. The top doctors very quickly rise into view both from what their patients say about them and from how well the patients do after treatment or surgery.
This first Doctor Profile is my personal favorite: Dr. Robert Klapper, with whom I’ve written two books and with whom I’m collaborating on a third book, HipHelp: Prevent, Prehab, or Recover from Surgery. He’s dedicated, funny, passionate about his work, sculpting, and surfing, and now he’s an on-air personality because of his “Weekend Warrior” show on ESPN710 radio. As we wrote books together a decade ago, he learned how good he was at demystifying anatomy and orthopedics for the general population by offering clear analogies and metaphors. Now he does it on-air.
Do you ever read about a doctor and it’s just a long list of universities and medical schools that makes your head spin? I like to skip over all that and find out about the doctor, the special skills and techniques and the bedside manner that helps patients get through difficult times.
My goal with this series is to give you a glimpse of the man or woman who is featured – not just a list of school credits. I want to let you know what they love about their work in medicine and what they are particularly good at. Finding out a bit about the doctor as a person doesn’t hurt, either, so that’s what I’m aiming at.
Dr. Klapper has been in private practice in Los Angeles at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center since 1989 caring for thousands of patients, some of them world-renowned athletes and others Hollywood’s most famous stars. He is currently the chief of orthopedic surgery for Cedars-Sinai Medical Group.
Here comes my version of a list of schools, so get ready: His education and medical training began with a degree in art history from Columbia College. He came from a blue collar family and he knew he would have to get a scholarship to go to school, so he learned to row and was accepted by Columbia for their crew team. He earned a medical degree from Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, the first time Columbia let one of their undergrads into their med school. Next he did an internship at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, a residency at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York, followed by a fellowship in arthritis and implant surgery at the Kerlan-Jobe Clinic in Los Angeles. OK, we got that out of the way.
Early in his career, he wanted to take the arthroscope into the hip joint, something that wasn’t being done much at that time. He realized the problem and solved it by creating instruments to be used in the surgery that could curve around the ball and socket joint. That was just the first of his six patents on instruments used to do complicated hip surgeries. It was because of this pioneering work that I met Dr. Klapper. He did a hip arthroscopy on my close friend Wilt Chamberlain in 1994 and Wilt connected us since Dr. Klapper said he wanted to learn about the pool rehab Wilt was doing with me.
He built his career by great work and following every lead. He banged on closed doors until he found the one that opened on La Brea Blvd. to the Bob Hope Medical Center, part of the Motion Picture & Television fund. Finally he was in-network with the entertainment business patients. He treated every patient who came to him, some who couldn’t pay. Word of mouth made his name familiar to more and more people.
Cut to a few years ago, when Dr. Klapper was seeing 70-80 patients every Tuesday and Thursday and was in the operating room every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Today he sees “only” 40-50 patients on Tuesdays and Thursdays, trying to end his day around 4 instead of much, much later. He has always taken Wednesday afternoons off for his down time – down time to him being sculpting or surfing. Sundays are his surfing days in Ventura. He’s a very good long board surfer and catches lots of waves at C. Street, a right point break. He and I have caught many waves there together when working on books. Not bad: surf in the morning, write all the rest of the day. We wrote two books that way and I’m hoping the same for the third. To help my writing process, he let me observe him do total hip and total knee surgeries and ACL knee surgeries and arthroscopies.
He works hard, is devoted to his patients, always answers his cell phone to discuss patient care, and goes the extra mile to make sure they are well taken care of as if each patient were a member of his own family. In fact, sometimes I wonder if maybe they aren’t. Whenever he wants VIP treatment for a specific patient, he tells them “tell them you’re my cousin.” I can’t tell you how many of his “cousins” I’ve taken care of!
As Chief of Orthopedics, he’s well known for running an on-time, efficient OR, and all the OR nurses will tell you how much they like being there with him. On top of being incredibly good at his job, he’s FUN and he liberally spreads that cheerfulness around.
Recently Dr. Klapper gave a lecture at the Getty Center Museum titled, “Michaelangelo’s Sculptures: How He Manipulated Anatomy.” His enjoyment of sculpting means he takes vacations to Italy where he sculpts in the marble from Michelangelo’s quarry in Carerra. Because he was an art history major as an undergraduate, he knows more about art than most doctors, and when his ESPN told him he could “talk about whatever you want,” he did. He merges his love of art and sports in his show, often comparing athletes to artists. Recently he took fifty of his “Warriors” listeners to the Norton-Simon Museum to compare Pablo Picasso’s art and career with that of Laker star Kobe Bryant and Vincent Van Gogh’s career to that of Alex Rodriguez. Most of those people had never been to a museum before, but they were willing spend $50 in admission fees to follow this doctor they’d learned to trust on the radio. He has appeared on television working closely with the Los Angeles Lakers pre-game show, and he is Fox TV’s expert on athletic injuries. They like his folksy, fun-to-follow explanations of sports injuries so much that they’ve installed camera in his home so they can easily cut to him as needed.
As some of Dr. Klapper’s peers consider retirement, he finds a compromise: he takes more vacations to surf at his Hawaii home near Diamond Head. He sums it up: “Don’t retire, do both.” And he’s lucky to have a wife who is also a doctor: Ellen Klapper, M.D., is head of the Cedars-Sinai blood bank and also carries medical responsibilities on her shoulders, so she understands the weight he carries with so many patients counting on him. I’ve seen her bring in Chinese take-out for dinner to the Ventura house as we’re getting our wet suits on for a sunset go-out, and without blinking an eye tell him, “Go surfing! GO!” She knows what makes him happy, and she wants to keep him that way. Their daughter Michele, followed in her father’s footsteps to Columbia then studied in Paris several years where she became fluent in French. Now she lives in Manhattan, working for a French company.
Have ideas of who else should be a Top Doctor? Submit them to LyndaHuey@CompletePT.com. You can also follow her at Twitter.com/lyndahuey.
Lynda Huey, M.S., founder of CompletePT and Huey’s Athletic Network, is a former athlete and coach whose own injuries led her into the water to find fitness and healing. She was educated at San Jose State University where she starred on the track and field team during its golden years. Lynda is the author of four books on water exercise and water rehabilitation.