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Doctor Q&A: Thomas Vail

Dr. Thomas Vail

Dr. Thomas Vail is an orthopaedic surgeon and chair of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery. After 20 successful years at Duke University, he came to UCSF to help build the new Orthopaedic Institute at Mission Bay.

Why did you become an orthopaedic surgeon?

My first encounter with the specialty was when I broke a bone. I was in sixth grade and broke my leg — my tibia to be exact — while playing soccer. I don't remember if that experience convinced me to become an orthopaedist, but I do remember the cast made me feel pretty cool!

I always loved math and science, so I got a degree in mechanical engineering and materials science. During my undergraduate studies, I was fascinated by the possibility of replacing parts of the human body with mechanical parts. So, I took that passion and ran with it. I went to medical school and then spent another seven years studying different facets of orthopaedic surgery.

Why did you choose to come to UCSF?

After 20 great years at Duke University Medical Center, I needed a compelling reason to leave and UCSF gave me one. They offered me the chance to build the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery and the Orthopaedic Institute into places where people could get pioneering care from top experts in the field.

What impressed you about UCSF?

One of the things I love about UCSF is the creativity and synergy between experts across all departments. When I'm looking to solve a complex problem, I can consult with some of the best physicians, nurses, therapists and scientists in the world without ever leaving the campus.

Your patient, Dr. Kevin Stroh, jokingly described himself as a "high-maintenance patient" because he had strong opinions about which treatment he wanted. Was that a pro or a con for you?

In my mind "high maintenance" means motivated, interested and educated. These are all very positive characteristics that help with recovery. Patients who take ownership of their condition and who are motivated to recover have a much better chance of achieving their goals.

U.S. News & World Report ranks you in the top 1 percent of orthopaedic surgeons in the United States. Do you put much stock in such rankings?

Success is always about the performance of the team, not one person. I chalk up my success to my great team of colleagues at UCSF and my very supportive family.

Interviewed February 2013 by Catherine Guthrie

Read More

To read an interview with Dr. Vail's patient, Dr. Kevin Stroh, click here.

Related Information

UCSF Clinics & Centers

Orthopaedic Institute

Arthritis & Joint Replacement Center
1500 Owens St.
San Francisco, CA 94158
Phone: (415) 353–2808
Fax: (415) 885–3862