Have Sutures, Will Travel -- Medicine Truck Goes Where The Action Is

Most vehicles become famous by winning races. A 63-foot tractor-trailer based in Ballard has become well known by attending races - footraces, hydroplane races, motocrosses and triathlons, as well as rodeos and football games.

The rig is the Mobile Sports Medicine Center. Thousands of athletes, from Mariners at spring training to cowboys and weekend runners, have been treated in it since 1987.

The van is owned and operated by the Sports Medicine Clinic in Ballard, where osteopathic physician Keith D. Peterson set up shop in 1963 and now heads a staff of 44 that includes MDs, dieticians, trainers, nurses, therapists and a podiatrist.

The van, a combination emergency room and training room, also is a combination community service and marketing device.

Peterson estimates it costs $65,000 to operate the van for a year. He said the clinic gets back only about $10,000 in appearance fees and occasional sponsorships. He said the vehicle cost $200,000 to buy and equip with everything from X-ray to ultrasound equipment.

``We went 100 percent over budget,'' Peterson said with a grin, sitting in his cluttered Ballard office. Dozens of autographed baseballs were on one table, football helmets lined a wall, the skeleton of a steer head was near the center of the room and a couch was covered with a blanket from Seattle's Lincoln High School, Peterson's alma mater. The radio was tuned to a country-music station.

The doctor, known simply as ``Keith'' to many athletes and patients, is an unpretentious fixture in Northwest sports.

Peterson, 56, was a high-school athlete who played football and baseball at the University of Montana after a stop at Centralia Junior College. The Montana connection explains Peterson's interest in rodeo. He has dealt with athletes from all sports and says he likes cowboys best.

``They appreciate everything you do and they say thank you,'' he said. ``And are those kids tough! Nobody is tougher than a rodeo cowboy. There is no comparison.''

He told of one bull rider who was treated for a broken jaw at the Ellensburg rodeo one afternoon, then jumped in his car and competed that night in Walla Walla.

The trailer is away from Ballard about four months a year. Peterson often does the driving.

The van also has been used to gather research data. A study of bareback and bull riders showed they had hyper-extended elbows on their gripping hand and bone chips. Mariner trainer Rick Griffin, who worked with Peterson on the study, is devising special taping and bracing to reduce the problem.

Griffin, Peterson and other colleagues also devised an exercise program about six years ago to reduce other rodeo injuries. Peterson said the number of injuries in typical three-day major rodeos he has worked has dropped from 20-30 to eight or nine as a result.

Peterson's goal is to someday see cowboys in their late 40s who aren't chronically limping because of knee, back and hip injuries.

The van also has a VCR that has been used to teach rescue and treatment techniques at West Coast hydroplane races.

Hydro crashes are the most dangerous and spectacular, but the event that produced the most injuries was the 1988 Seattle-to-Portland (STP) bicycle ride. More than 300 riders visited the trailer, many for treatment of cuts and bruises suffered in spills.

Spills are sometimes unavoidable, but most weekend-warrior injuries are preventable. A Peterson slogan: ``People should get in shape to play a sport, not play a sport to get in shape.''