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Alumnus returns to Athens as GOBA director
Thomas Pommering, D.O., developed his love of cycling as a medical student at Ohio University

By Anita Martin
June 25, 2010

It’s 8 a.m. on a balmy June morning in Athens, and the roads are swarming with cyclists riding the world’s largest family-oriented bicycle tour. Near the Athens Community Center, medical volunteers have set up a make-shift canopy tent to treat the inevitable bumps, bruises, sprains—and hopefully that’s the worst they’ll see.

Welcome to the 22nd Great Ohio Bicycle Adventure, when nearly 2,450 bike enthusiasts embark on a 350-mile two-wheeled journey through Southeastern Ohio. With this many cyclists—of all ages—medical issues, from dehydration to road rash to heart palpitations, are sure to arise. Luckily, Thomas L. Pommering, D.O. (’91), is there to coordinate the care they need.

Since 1993, Pommering has served as medical director for GOBA, recruiting and overseeing teams of about 20 volunteer physicians, nurses and paramedics who provide twice-daily clinics, monitor the race with first-aid kits and ham radios, and prepare emergency response plans. Paramedics with American Medical Response also provide support.

“When GOBA first started, 22 years ago, the medical system was run out of the back of Dr. Montalto’s car,” Pommering says, referring to former medical director Norman Montalto, D.O. “Now we have a dedicated health van and twice-daily clinics, complete with massage and osteopathic manipulative treatment—completely free of charge.”

Pommering took over for Montalto, an osteopathic family physician in West Virginia, in 1993, after serving GOBA for two years as a volunteer physician. He estimates that the clinics see between 125 and 200 people during the week-long tour.

This GOBA year’s participants ride approximately 50 miles a day with overnight camping in Logan, McConnelsville, Marietta, Athens and McArthur.

“It’s been hillier and more consistently hot than in most years,” Pommering says, noting that temperatures in Marietta crept into the high 80s. “But so far, we’ve been lucky; we’ve had a lot of hot riders, but not a lot of sick riders.”

According to Pommering, the most common bike event injuries involve overuse: tendonitis, strains, knee cap pain. Others, like dehydration or abrasions, are environmental.

“In my experience, trauma-related injuries—when people crash at high speed—are always the worst,” Pommering says.

He emphasizes that GOBA participants are required to wear helmets, follow all traffic laws and attend a safety session to prepare. “We have a good preventive effort, but with 3,000 riders, ranging [in age] from three to 89, someone’s bound to take a spill or overheat or come in with chest pain.”

And, of course, the riders have to contend with the elements.

“We’ve had at least two tornado warnings during previous GOBA tours,” Pommering says. “Luckily none of them developed into tornadoes, but we’ve got contingencies and emergency action plans.”

Medical volunteers ride along carrying local ham radios (more reliable than cell phones on rural roads), and nightly camps are equipped with public address systems. Each afternoon, cars with bicycle racks (“sags,” as they’re called by the medical staff) patrol the tour routes looking for fatigued riders who could use a lift to camp.

Along with Co-Medical Director Diane Manos, M.D., and GOBA Director Julie Van Winkle, Pommering coordinates with local communities to alert local hospital emergency departments about the event and secure evacuation buses and other provisions in case of emergency.

“We set the bar really high for safety and support,” Pommering says. “Riders who do other long rides often tell us that this is the best-supported week-long bike tour they’ve done.”

Pommering, division chief for sports medicine and medical director for sports medicine at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, discovered his love for cycling in the rolling hills of Athens as a medical student at OU-COM.

“The Athens area is really the best place in Ohio to ride your bike,” Pommering said, adding, “for me, [GOBA] is a great opportunity to have fun, serve the community and provide medical education to medical students and young physicians.”

Pommering is riding GOBA-2010 with his oldest daughter, Josephine, who has joined him for the past seven years. She turned 14 Thursday, during GOBA’s layover day in Athens. Pommering’s wife, Phyllis Polas, D.O. (’95), and their other two children, Emma and Nathaniel, drove down from Columbus Thursday to celebrate and visit their alma mater. Polas is a pediatrician in Hilliard, Ohio.

In May, Pommering was one of three physicians named Ohio Athletic Trainers’ Association (OATA) Team Physician of the Year for his dedication to serving student athletics among Columbus schools and communities. Throughout the year, Pommering volunteers his time and medical skills to everything from high school football teams to gymnastics tournaments to the Radio City Rockettes.

In addition to his practice and community service, Pommering finds time to conduct medical research and help train tomorrow’s physicians. He co-authored his first published research article as a family medicine fellow at OU-COM, and he maintains a regular byline in scholarly journals related to pediatric and family medicine. At national conferences, Pommering is a respected lecturer on topics ranging from shin pain to shoulder atrophy to—surprise, surprise—injury patterns during long-distance bicycle tours.

As a medical educator, Pommering holds the position of assistant clinical professor of family medicine at OU-COM. He is also a preceptor at the OhioHealth Grant Medical Center, The Ohio State University College of Medicine and Capital University in Columbus.

Immediately following GOBA-2010, Pommering will return to the Columbus area to serve as a volunteer physician for the Tour de Grandview, June 26-27, a professional cycling race in Grandview, Ohio.

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