In which we discuss giving birth, turning a treehouse into a home office, the trials and tribulations of college, pursuing what you love as a career, and the future of my younger sister’s education.
When we’re bored, my dad and I watch a lot of Treehouse Masters (which is on Animal Planet, which I will never understand because it has literally nothing to do with animals). The host is this bumbling and bouncing guy, Pete Nelson, who gets excited about different types of wood and the astounding amount of things you can fit into a room located in a tree that is approximately a third of the size of my dorm room. And the thing is, he builds these treehouses for adults! And these adults are so damn excited to climb one hundred steps spiraling around a massive oak to hang out in a tiny room for a few hours (or until they get sick from the height).
But there’s something to this, something that connects both my father and I, both to each other and to something within ourselves. That something is the sheer ebullience of childhood and its many, many pleasures.
When I was probably six or so, my dad brought in some treehouse specialists to build a tree fort in our backyard. It wasn’t exactly a treehouse; our trees were far too tall and not nearly supportive enough to sustain the weight of both a wooden structure and my hefty personality. But, it was perfect nonetheless. I spent many childhood days locked up in there, playing house with my friends and discovering the dead birds that accidentally got trapped in there.
A few years later we moved away from that treehouse and our real house and everything we formerly knew as home. I’ve since gone back and visited our old property and saw that the family that now occupies our former home still has “The Clubhouse,” as we called it. But they have two young boys, not three young girls and a baby, so the place – although still existing as a realm of childhood and its many joys – now maintains a different function. It now serves a different role in the lives of different people.
My dad and I have each grown up a lot in the past fifteen years since the construction of that fort. He now has adult children, I now have adult responsibilities. But somehow, we’re both growing younger in our age.
The things that impressed us as young kids still impress us now. Fart jokes are still as hilarious as ever. Treehouses still function as places of wonder, places where we can pretend to hold any career imaginable, pretend to live any life possible, and pretend that all of our dreams really have come true.
Perhaps, in some way, that treehouse my father gifted me and my sisters with at a young age already did all of those things for me.
Dr. John Hill understands the wonder of a treehouse. Twenty years ago, he built one for his two young daughters, and recently he converted it into his very own home office. (Which, frankly, I find it ironic that he – as a doctor of sports medicine who assists people with sports-related injuries – holds an office up in a tree, virtually inaccessible to those with lower-body injuries. I digress.)
John Hill reminds me of the aforementioned Treehouse Masters’ host, Pete Nelson. He’s bright and excited. He loves doing work with his hands. He did incredible things with a treehouse. He’s all over the place in the best possible way. And he has passions and skills that allow him to produce incredible results, both in his career and at home with his family.
But John also reminds me of my own dad, in ways that feel nearly inexplicable. Both John and my dad are phenomenal fathers, ones who dedicated (and still dedicate) years and years of their lives to their daughters (and, in my dad’s case, his son) and wives, who countered what was expected of them in order to pursue what they loved, and are just generally very interesting to listen to (once you get them to open up!).
Morgan Vickers: The early part of your career was focused on obstetrics, and at this time you delivered over a thousand babies.
John Hill: Uh huh.
MV: Around this time, your children were also born.
JH: Yeah, so what it is is that I’ve been a family physician for over twenty-nine years, and so [in] my original residency program I was planning to be a missionary doctor in Africa, so I got a lot a lot more spiritual training than what a most family practice residents do. And then I worked a lot in emergency rooms, so the first three years out of residency, I was mostly an ER doc. But I also did obstetrics and family medicine at that time, too.
And then my daughters – we adopted both of our daughters – and one had some special needs, so it was difficult to go to a developing country with her, so that’s where I wound up being in academic medicine now for a little over twenty-five years.
So through that, as a family physician, I was able to do a lot of different things. So we had advanced training tracks for family docs to teach them how to be rural physicians. It taught them C-Section skills, obstetrical ultrasounds, laparoscopic surgery, as well as some other things they’d need in a rural practice. And through that time I’d always done still some emergency medicine and still done a lot of orthopedics, and during the middle of [that time] – about 1998 – I started a fellowship program to train other docs in how to do sports medicine, primary care sports medicine. And that program has just grown and expanded over the years until now I’m at the point where I do mostly orthopedics – musculoskeletal ultrasounds and things related to sports medicine.
MV: You answered one of the questions I was going to ask; I was going to ask if you hand-delivered your daughters because you were working in obstetrics at that time.
But related to that, because you spent so much time as a family doctor and working in women’s health and wellness, I wanted to know if working in those fields taught you anything about your daughters or anything about your wife.
JH: Oh, absolutely. But I think probably, more precisely, my wife taught me more about being a better doctor in women’s health. And I’ve learned so much more about pediatrics from my own children than I’ve learned from any book I’ve read. It’s the same way with orthopedic injuries – just having some of the injuries and fractures that I’ve had myself, I’ve learned an awful lot more about what it feels like to have those injuries and what treatments are more effective than others. It’s all wrapped up together.
MV: Exactly. And I know you now still use ultrasounds in the work that you’re doing in sports medicine. But when you made your switch from women’s health to sports medicine, and now that you’ve been doing it for a long time, what were or are some of the main differences and similarities that you’ve seen between the two fields?
JH: Well, they’re pretty interrelated, really. Like, for instance, when I was doing a lot of the high-risk obstetrics and I was on-call for a couple of different residency programs to do the emergency C-Sections and I had a lot of my own obstetrical patients, too.
I remember one husband and wife – they were both Iron Man triathletes. One year he got third place in the Kona Iron Man and she’d placed in Kona as well. When she wound up being pregnant, she came in at eight weeks and said, “Is it still okay if I’m riding my bicycle five hundred miles a week?”
MV: (shocked/astounded/impressed laughter)
JH: And for her, that was just fine because that was not a very extreme thing at all. And eventually, during her pregnancy, eventually she couldn’t do that, [so she] swam quite a bit. [She] then had a method of delivery where you really embrace the pain, you don’t try to take any meds or anything, ‘cus that’s just kind of what athletes do.
Then, really close to the time of delivery, the baby had a cord wrapped around its neck twice, and the heart rate went down. That’s where we went from a very non-invasive type of labor – there was a doula, we had chants playing in the background, aromatherapy – to where I placed a pudendal block to block the nerves, I cut an episiotomy, and then used forceps to deliver the baby. That’s work where if I hadn’t have done that, the baby would have died because we didn’t really have time to do a C-Section. But that was where we went from doing pretty non-invasive things to going to an invasive delivery.
The next baby she had was really similar, except that little girl did not have problems at all and everything went fine; she just did a normal delivery. But that’s where sports medicine and obstetrics were kind of interrelated.
Since that time, I’ve done the husband’s vasectomy, [and] eventually wound up diagnosing both he and his son with ankylosing spondylitis, and took care of that. They ended up staying active.
MV: Kind of related to what you were talking about in regards to high-levels of athleticism, I played high-level soccer all the way up until I came to college and I’ve seen a lot of friends and family members sidelined because of injuries that they could recover from – like torn ACLs or broken bones – but I’ve also seen a lot of friends no longer able to play sports because of injuries like concussions, or things like that. And I know that higher-level sports are becoming more prominent at younger ages, so what kind of risks are we running by pursuing these high-level, high-contact sports for such long periods of time?
JH: Oh, I think really that’s probably the biggest risk – is specialization [at a young age]. Really, kids do so much better if they play soccer, play tag, they run, they also play baseball, and snowboard – as many activities as they can is a lot better. For instance, in gymnastics, most kids are pretty serious in that by the time they’re eight to ten years old. They’re training ten hours or more a week in a gym, and that’s really difficult and that’s what sets them up for overuse. Tennis is another sport [like that], and baseball is a sport that you can play year-round. And I think that’s probably a larger risk than actual contact.
Concussions probably, all in all, aren’t more common than they used to be. It’s just that we diagnose them much more frequently, and people are understanding the seriousness of them. But, I mean, there were a number of concussions I had as a kid that nobody ever knew that’s what they were, but I can look back at them retrospectively and know that’s what was going on.
MV: You were just talking about how it’s better to do a lot of different activities. In the article about you turning the treehouse into your home office, you talked about how you have a short attention span, which is why you have so many interests. In this way, what is the benefit of pursuing a lot of different things, either in regards to sports, or doing a lot of different activities and studying a lot of different fields, like you have in your life?
JH: Well I think that some of it is individual personalities. Like for me, I could never just do one thing because I just get so bored with it, and everything is just interesting and fascinating to me. And that’s where I come up with a lot of stuff. But not everybody is like that. Some people just more naturally pursue one area that they’re really interested in, and get very good at that. But that’s [also] what sets you up for overuse injuries or burnout as a young athlete.
I’ve seen kids, before they even get to high school, that are burned out from sports. And that’s what their parents are planning [for] and that’s what their scholarship is going to be. They’re going to be set for life. But they’re just tired of baseball by the time they get to be sixteen. So, that’s where I think, especially in youth sports, you have to try to make stuff fresh and different and exciting, and let them try different things, and not try to subspecialize too quickly.
MV: You talked a bit about how parents think that their kids are going to get to college on these sports scholarships. And in the article, you talked about how when you were going to school, your dad thought you were wasting your time on medicine and thought you should be a carpenter. I find this to be funny because so many of my peers came into school declared pre-med because it’s what their parents wanted them to do, but they end up not doing well in the classes or not enjoying it, so they burned out in the pre-requisites. It seems you kind of had the opposite experience though.
What kept you going in the medical field, and what kind of encouragement do you pass along to your daughters in relation to their pursuits into whatever fields they may choose?
JH: Everyone’s got their own gifts and talents. My oldest daughter is just really a talented writer and really expressive. The liberal arts are really where her skills are, and she doesn’t have any interest in medicine, so for me to push her into that field – well, that wouldn’t have worked well at all.
And even for myself, I started college as a music major. I was planning to be a composer, so I studied music composition for two years. And that was not where my talent lay. I had an advisor tell me that I had no talent for music, and that I shouldn’t sign up for any more composition courses in the fall. And I knew that if I continued with music, I’d probably wind up a junior high band director with students shooting spit wads at me all day long, so I dropped out of college at that point and started driving an ambulance. That’s how I got interested in medicine.
My mother’s a nurse, and so when I had a chance to go to paramedics school and be one of the first paramedics in the Denver area, she encouraged me to go back to college and pursue medicine. Even though my dad didn’t encourage me in that, my mother did. And I’m really glad I made that decision.
I’ve always been real good with using my hands. My great-grandfather and grandfather and father were all carpenters and cabinetmakers, and so when I started doing medicine, my father appreciated the talent in that, but couldn’t really understand why I would spend all this time in school. And that’s where he thought that if medicine doesn’t work out for me, I’d be great as a carpenter.
MV: So, my younger sister actually just got into the University of Denver [where you teach], and she’s still undecided, so I wanted to ask you if you had any words of encouragement to persuade her to come to your University?
JH: I think it’s good for the first year to have mostly general studies, because sometimes the people that come in absolutely certain what field that they’re going into sometimes change their mind. And for me, I changed my mind completely. So, as you’re continuing on in a field, that’s where it becomes clearer and clearer where your skills and interests are.
Anything you really love to do, you’re probably going to excel at. And that’s where if you’re really working and fighting, and pursuing biology because you know your parents want you to and you know that you hate it, it’s never really going to work out for you.
So, hopefully your sister will come to the same conclusion. DU really is a great school.