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Local surgeon celebrates 25 years with Penn State Health

by on January 11, 2018 7:21 AM

UNIVERSITY PARK — When Dr. Wayne Sebastianelli first came to Penn State to develop a sports medicine program, he was basically a one-man show working out of an exam room in Ritenour Health Center on the University Park Campus. 

That was 25 years ago. Today, the program he developed, Penn State Sports Medicine, sees approximately 50,000 patient visits per year and employs four orthopedic surgeons (including Sebastianelli), five primary care sports medicine physicians, 12 physical therapists and approximately 25 on-campus athletic trainers.

These days, Sebastianelli wears many hats. He is associate dean for clinical affairs, which has him managing the more than 60 local physicians and five clinic sites that make up the Penn State Health System in State College. He also is Penn State’s Kalenak Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery, medical director of Penn State Sports Medicine and chief of staff at Mount Nittany Medical Center. But, first and foremost, he is a surgeon.

“I still do 225 to 230 cases and approximately 1,800 patient visits per year,” he said. “Taking care of patients is my favorite part of the job. It’s something that gets into your blood. You never forget what it means to take care of a patient and what it means to have been given the privilege to be able to do that.”

As a kid growing up in Jessup, Sebastianelli at one point thought he might like to be a priest, but, he said, “when I recognized the sacrifices that would go with that, I realized that wasn’t going to work for me, so in about sixth grade, I decided I wanted to be a physician.”

Sebastianelli went on to attend and play football at the University of Rochester, where he was granted entry into medical school after his sophomore year. He continued his residency there, and eventually decided to specialize in orthopedic surgery.

“My dad owned a construction company, so growing up I was always playing with tools and using saws and drills and that kind of thing, so I was very facile with that stuff,” he said.

“As I went through medical school and started doing some of the rotations, I realized orthopedics was really cool stuff. Replacing joints, cutting bones, realigning pressure points — it was fascinating. And the more I learned about it, it became clear to me that orthopedics is what I wanted to do.”

Sebastianelli first came to Penn State to do a year-long fellowship in 1988. During that time, he worked with the late Dr. Alex Kalenak, who was then a professor with the Penn State University College of Medicine and team orthopedic surgeon for Penn State Athletics. He returned to Rochester to work after his fellowship ended, but not before he also got to know key members of Penn State’s Athletic Department, including football coach Joe Paterno and athletic director Jim Tarman. A few years later, just as Penn State was about to enter the Big Ten, he found himself being recruited by Penn State administrators. 

“They wanted someone who could start a sport medicine program, and they knew me and knew that I was capable of doing this job. I was young enough and stupid enough to leave a very, very good job to come and start a program,” he chuckled. “I’ve been here ever since.”

Over the past 35 years as a physician and 25 years at Penn State, Sebastianelli said he has seen many changes in the field of orthopedics.

“Orthopedics has changed from large-incision open surgery to significant mini-invasive arthroscopic procedures. The landscape has changed to become more in tune with how to rehabilitate injuries. We are much more knowledgeable about physical therapy, physiatry, physical medicine, and we have better concepts of how to deal with comorbidities such as diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and blood clots,” he said.

Another area of medicine where Sebastianelli has seen great progress is in the research of head injuries in athletics, something in which he has been instrumental.

“Concussions became a very quick interest of mine, the very first time I had an unconscious player on the football field. As a surgeon, you don’t get a lot of exposure to that, and it was obvious that there really wasn’t much that people understood about them,” he said.

“I started to collaborate with people on campus who had interest from a psychological perspective as far as what a concussion did, and ended up creating a big effort between myself and (Penn State professor of kinesiology and neurosurgery) Sam Slobounov. In the ensuing 25 years, we’ve received over $25 million worth of research grant money, and written close to 50 articles and two textbooks together. So, it’s been a productive relationship that has certainly contributed to the increased awareness about what head injury is in athletes.”

Sebastianelli thinks the future looks very bright for the local medical community.

“We’ve developed a good network of providers, not only through Penn State Health but also with Mount Nittany Health and Geisinger. ... We’re just going to continue to get better and better over time,” he said. “As the region becomes more sophisticated with health care — the (Penn State) College of Medicine now has a strong presence here, we have resident education here — we’ll train those people and they will want to stay in the area, and we’ll continue to grow our very capable health network in the region. It’s an infectious process, in a good way.”

Personally, Sebastianelli plans to be a part of that growth for the foreseeable future.

“I just turned 60, so it depends on how long I stay healthy, but as long as the Lord blesses me with the energy and the health, I’ll keep going. I love what I do."


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