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Meet the First-Ever NFL Chief Medical Advisor—It's a Woman!

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Over the past few years, the National Football League has been in the news for how it's been handling the potentially-devastating effects of repeated head trauma and concussions. The whispers included "how dangerous are concussions?" and "is the League doing enough?"

In April, a judge ruled on a class-action lawsuit against the NFL, providing thousands of retired players up to $5 million each for serious medical problems resulting from repeated injury. But, by then, the League had already created a new position to oversee the issue of concussions and how to better protect players, as well as safeguard the athletes' health in general: the Chief Medical Advisor of the NFL.

Who was tapped to fill this new role? Many were slightly surprised to hear a woman's name called, but maybe that's because they've never read Dr. Elizabeth Nabel's resume. Not only is Nabel a renowned cardiologist and president of the prestigious Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, but she's also a professor at Harvard Medical School, former director of the National Institute of Health's National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, and even helped get the Heart Truth campaign (also known as the "Red Dress" campaign, aimed at raising awareness for women's heart health) off the ground. (Sounds like she’s on her way to become one of the 18 Women in History Who Changed the Health and Fitness Game.)

Now, this super-busy top doc will be overseeing health and wellness for the men who play the nation's most-watched sport—and with the visibility of the pro football, she thinks her position can potentially impact more than just the guys in the League. As the NFL season kicks off, we caught up with Dr. Elizabeth Nabel for more deets on her new role.

Shape: What made you want to take the NFL's newly-created position of Chief Medical Advisor?
Elizabeth Nabel (EN): The NFL has an unmatched platform to affect change—not just in football or professional sports, but for athletes of all ages, across all sports—and that's why I wanted to take on this role. With the NFL's deep commitment to scientific research—and the great concern in the sport surrounding health, especially concussions—I saw the potential to make an impact. The application of medical research and technological advances, combined with training of players and coaches, have made the game safer, but there is more to do. By helping to make sports safer, I can be a part of improving the health of our society as a whole, and that's very exciting! As a parent, and hopefully someday a grandparent, I'm proud to play a role in shaping a culture of safety for the next generation. (Nabel isn't the only woman new to the NFL team. Here's What You Should Know About Jen Welter, the NFL's Newest Coach.)

Shape: There are a ton of health issues that may afflict players in the NFL. How have you approached your role as advisor, especially with your background as a cardiologist?
EN: My role as a strategic advisor to the league is to ensure that the best and brightest minds across all specialties are working collaboratively to make the game safer. As a cardiologist, I've had a long-standing interest in health and wellness, and we know that exercise and engaging in sports is a big component of that. It is really about making sports safe and promoting health in whatever way we can.

Shape: Concussions in the NFL have certainly been huge topic of discussion. What have you learned about brain injury so far?
EN: I am a firm believer in the power of evidence-based research and the translation of discoveries to medical advances that will improve the health and safety of all people who play sports. We are just at the beginning of understanding the long-term effects of repetitive head injuries. We need to better understand the basic biology, the mechanisms behind repetitive head injury, for example, and then on the basis of that fundamental understanding, we can think about designing diagnostic tools and developing treatment modalities. This process applies not just to head trauma, but to other issues as well. In this first year, I want to accelerate and deepen the work that is being done with the ultimate goal of making the game safer.

Shape: What are some of the other major issues you've been tackling in your first months on the job?
EN: One focus for me has been on the area of behavioral health. We know that behavioral health is tied to physical health, and we need to support research in order to gain a greater understanding of how one impacts the other. We need a better understanding of the incidence and prevalence of depression, suicide, substance abuse, and other behavioral issues—not only in football, but in other sports as well. This knowledge will help us to understand how behavioral health connects to physical health, not only in active playing years, but over the entire lifespan of an athlete.

Shape: Has anything surprised you about the NFL so far? What are some things you've learned about the League that you didn't know going in?
EN: As a physician, a mom, and as a fan, I was surprised to learn about all the initiatives underway and the tremendous resources the NFL is expending to make sports at all levels safer, particularly youth sports. This commitment was one of the things that attracted me to the role. I believe that the NFL has the ability to drive research discoveries that will have a watershed effect on all sports, from professional to amateur to recreational.

Shape: You've worked a lot with women over the course of your career—at Brigham and Women's Hospital, with The Heart Truth campaign. Is evaluating and advising men different than women?
EN: Not totally. When I graduated from medical school, the field was heavily male-dominated, and I've had many male mentors and colleagues throughout my career. In my experience, every individual—male or female—is unique in how they communicate, how they collaborate, in what motivates them, and what inspires them. The key to effective leadership is realizing it's not one-size-fits-all. (It’s no doubt that Nabel is breaking barriers, just like These Strong Women Who Are Changing the Face of Girl Power As We Know It.)

Shape: Speaking of your other work, can you tell us a little more about your work as president of Brigham and Women's?
EN: I'm truly fortunate to lead such an extraordinary hospital, with incredibly devoted staff delivering the highest quality care to patients, transforming the future of medicine through research, and training the next generation of leaders in health care. What's unique about the Brigham is the compassion of our staff, and the many ways they go above and beyond for our patients, their families and each other.

Shape: What's been the most rewarding part of leading a top hospital?
EN: One aspect I find particularly rewarding is when we achieve a breakthrough—whether it's for an individual patient, or through a pioneering new procedure or a scientific discovery. Knowing that, as a medical community, we have saved a life or had an effect on the quality of someone's life is the greatest reward.

Shape: If you could share one piece of health wisdom that you've learned through the years with the average woman, what would it be?
EN: Exercise and eat healthy. Heart disease strikes women of all ages—but each one of us has the power to reduce our risk. (Psst: it's one of the Scary Medical Diagnoses Young Women Don't Expect.)


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