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Physician Spotlight: Physicians Participating in Extreme Sports

January 15, 2018

Four decidedly driven doctors talk about determination, competition and camaraderie

Best Foot Forward 

 As a bariatric surgeon, Muhammad Feteiha, MD, who practices in Springfield and West Orange at Advanced Surgical Associates, helps patients take control of their bodies and their health every day. But he still recalls poignantly the day nine years ago when he decided to take better control of his own health. “I realized I had worked hard to get through medical school, start working, start a practice,” he says, “and I realized I needed to take better care of myself.” That set him on a path of regular exercise, which has led to a regular habit of bike races and marathons and even an Ironman competition – 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of biking, and a 26.2-mile marathon, raced in that order and without breaks.

“I keep trying to top myself,” says Dr. Feteiha, “and I keep motivating patients. I tell them to start small by staying local and doing shorter distance races. Set goals. Do a 5K and walk it; then do a 5K and run it; then try a 10K. One of the things I stress to patients is that as you start to do more of these kinds of things, you start to develop a social network around these things as opposed to bad habits of the past.”

Man … or Machine? 

 Not many people can say they have traveled to all seven continents. Internist Samir Patel, MD, who practices in Warren at Berkeley Internal Medicine, can – and he can top it by adding that he has completed marathons in each of these places. He has run the “granddaddy of all races” – the 155-mile Marathon des Sables – in the blistering heat of the Sahara Desert, and also faced the brutal cold of the North Pole. He has run alongside wild animals through a game park in South Africa, and swam in the Irish Sea while completing an Ironman triathlon in Dublin. “You can’t mimic a lot of these environments, so you prepare by putting in the training and the miles to get the distance under your belt,” he says. “I’m the crazy person you see on the street, running in three layers of clothing on the hottest days or running through a blizzard.”

What keeps Dr. Patel going? “The possibility,” he says. “There is always something bigger, better, more challenging. What is the body capable of? Surprisingly, more than most people think. If you can survive a week self-supported in the Sahara Desert in 120-degree heat, worrying about a change in schedule or a long day is not such a big deal. You see, there is a lot more you can deal with and overcome.” A love of racing, and the benefits it imparts, is something Dr. Patel is now passing along by coaching his kids and starting a running club at their elementary school. “I want to lead by example,” he says. “Any way we can get kids running and active, it’s good for their health, and it builds confidence and self-esteem. Never set limits on what you can do. That’s the message I want to drive home. Anything is possible.”

On the Go

Janice Baker, MD, who practices in Chatham at Chatham Family Medicine, is always in motion. As a family medicine physician and medical director of Overlook’s hospice program, she is frequently bouncing from her office to patients’ homes. When she’s not practicing medicine, she’s just as busy, swimming two or three days a week, bike riding and working out. In cold climates, she skis; in warm climates, she snorkels. Dr. Baker’s athletic prowess dates back to her high school years in northern California, where she was a runner and competitive swimmer. In more recent years, she has channeled that drive into triathlons, often teaming up with colleagues in local races. “I like the sum of the sports. Most people who do triathlons don’t have the swimming background, but I do. And I also run, so the only thing I had to pick up was the biking,” she says. “I enjoy the camaraderie. It’s great to be part of a team and I hate to lose.”

An added bonus to all of Dr. Baker’s activity is that she gets to be a role model to her patients. “I’m not just telling them to exercise; I’m doing it, too,” she says. “The intrinsic benefits are obvious, but I also get to take a mental break from things when I’m focused on pushing my body.”

Breathing Easy 

 Pulmonologist Jaime Cancel, MD, who practices in Cedar Knolls at Pulmonary and Allergy Associates, knows not to take a single breath for granted. But he feels most alive atop his bike, where he can be found most weekends, often racking up 60 to 80 miles at a time. “I can disconnect,” he says. “I just enjoy the air, and the stress of the world is gone.”

Dr. Cancel started riding as a child in his native Puerto Rico. “I didn’t have a car, and I would want to see my grandmother. So I would take my BMX bike through mountains with plantains and gardens,” he recalls. Years later, as a resident at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, he began riding long distances, often at high elevations. “A lot of my friends were riders. We would ride over the George Washington Bridge and over to Bear Mountain. Then we started looking at other things to do.” That inner drive continues today. Dr. Cancel has been known to ride as much as 100 miles at a time, and completes at least one 107-mile Gran Fondo every year, a highly regarded long-distance ride that originated in Italy in 1970. “It’s my favorite ride,” he says. “Riding with friends is so fulfilling.”