Olympic skater Thomas joins Carle orthopedic staff

Olympic skater Thomas joins Carle orthopedic staff

URBANA – Back in the 1980s, Debi Thomas skated her way to national and world championships and an Olympic medal.

But the only blades she uses these days are in the operating room.

Thomas, who went to medical school after she retired from figure skating, is the newest orthopedic surgeon on staff at Carle Clinic, where she started seeing patients this past week.

Dr. Jim Sobeski, head of orthopedics at Carle, said the clinic is thrilled to have Thomas on board.

He knew about her fame as a skater, but that wasn't a factor in bringing her here, Sobeski said.

"We're just looking for the best doctor we could find that would be a great total joint surgeon," he said.

In fact, Sobeski said, Thomas doesn't seem to dwell much on her former athletic career in her practice of medicine.

"That's a different part of her life," he added. "She's a physician now."

For those too young to remember Thomas' skating career, she won two U.S. national championships, a world championship and an Olympic bronze medal all before she graduated from Stanford University in engineering in 1991.

She was the first black athlete to win an Olympic medal in the Winter Games, in 1988, and later entertained in shows and tours, was a guest on radio and TV programs and was part of a White House delegation accompanying first lady Laura Bush to the 2006 Winter Games in Torino.

But ever since she was 5 years old, Thomas said, she wanted to be a doctor.

She graduated from Northwestern University Medical School in 1997 and completed her orthopedic residency in 2005 in Los Angeles.

What brings her to Urbana? The job, she said.

There just aren't that many multispecialty clinics the size of Carle that do joint replacement, Thomas said. She interviewed at Carle, and was impressed.

"It's really a remarkable place," she said.

Thomas, who came to Carle from a fellowship at the Dorr Arthritis Institute in Inglewood, Calif., is a specialist in minimally invasive total hip replacement surgery.

Sobeski said Carle Clinic has a fairly long waiting list for total joint surgery, which involves replacement of both sides of the joints, and Thomas will help get more patients in more quickly.

With her athletic background, Thomas said she once considered going into sports medicine, but found it wasn't for her.

"This is boring," she said with a laugh. "Give me a saw, some power tools."

Orthopedic surgery appeals to the side of her that enjoys fixing and making things, she said, and it gives her a chance to work in a field that is rapidly developing procedures to help people suffering from arthritis.

"You take people so debilitated and you give them their life back," she said.

Thomas said she especially enjoys people, and warns Carle will probably have to drag her away from her patients.

"I love talking to the patients," she said. "People are just interesting. They all have their own stories."

Thomas is married to Chris Bequette, an attorney and financial adviser to football coaches, and they have a 10-year-old son, Luc.

For fun, she loves roller coasters, she said. She has major interests in health care policy and reform, and there is another dream she still thinks about: contributing to a space mission.

She doesn't skate much anymore, Thomas said, but she has heard about the Ice Arena at the University of Illinois, and may give it a spin sometime.

"Once or twice a year my husband makes me get on the ice," she said.

So, which job is harder? Being a professional skater or being a doctor?

"A mom," Thomas said with a smile.

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