Like many who have attained a level of success in a chosen profession, the decision to embark on such a path is often dictated by fate.
For Michael Russonella, his road to a career in medicine came somewhat by accident, if you’ll excuse the analogy. The Nutley High School graduate and former Raiders football player discovered his passion after incurring an injury playing the game he loved.
“I hurt my shoulder in my senior year (1991) while playing for Nutley against St. Joseph,” Russonella recalled. “My dad (Joseph) wasn’t satisfied with the diagnosis and we ended up taking a train to Birmingham, Alabama, to visit Dr. Andrews.”
Dr. James Andrews, the renowned orthopedic surgeon, has been lauded for his surgical skills, as well as his scientific and clinical research contributions in knee, shoulder and elbow injury prevention and treatment. In addition, he has made major presentations on every continent, and has authored numerous scientific articles and books. Dr. Andrews has also operated on some of the most famous sports figures throughout the world.
“As a kid, he explained things so carefully as to what my injury was about,” Russonella recalled. “It was his thoroughness. He took the time so I could fully understand, and that stuck with me.”
As Russonella would later say, the course had been set in his professional career path, diverting his original choice of becoming a teacher and high school football coach.
Fast forward nearly 20 years and Dr. Michael C. Russonella, D.O., the son of Joseph and Jackie Russonella and older brother of Pam, is an orthopedic surgeon in Northern New Jersey with an up and coming practice. A 1992 graduate of Nutley High, he went on to attend Montclair State University, graduating with a degree in Biology four years later. In 1999, he started medical school at Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine, in Erie, Pennsylvania, where he was eventually graduated. Following an intense residency program which included training in joint replacement, trauma and Sports Medicine, he spent a year under the tutelage of Dr. Andrews, earning a fellowship in Sports Medicine.
In addition to his surgical services, where he operates at four local hospitals, Russonella’s practice, the North Jersey Orthopaedic and Sports Medicine Institute, LLC, is located in Nutley and was formed in 2009. He also serves as the team doctor for Belleville and Bloomfield High Schools and has done some consulting work for West Essex High, as well as working with the recreation football programs in Nutley and Bloomfield.
In his first year dealing with Belleville High athletes, Russonella admitted being busier than anticipated.
“The football program has had its share of tough injuries,” Russonella said. “It started the first game of the regular season with a serious shoulder injury that required surgery. There’s also been ankle and knee injuries and most recently, a separated shoulder.”
At Belleville, he’s also performed in-house physicals for the athletes, as well as providing late office hours on Friday nights for injured players.
The focus on Russonella’s practice, in many cases, is minimally invasive procedures.
“Having played football, and loving the sport today, I want to be able to help the athletes get better, but we also want the parents to know that we’re accessible,” Russonella said. “I’m a local guy, I grew up in Nutley, I live in Belleville now and I’m here to help. This is a passion of mine. I wasn’t raised in a household of doctors. I’m the first in my family to become a doctor. I want to give back and this is something I feel will help so many others.”
Russonella feels good communication with the athletic trainer and parents at the high schools is key,
“I already have a good relationship with Bloomfield’s trainer,” Russonella said. “We had a situation last week where a Bloomfield player had a serious hand injury in a football game. I got the call and within an hour, we had the player ready for surgery and he came through it well. That’s what we’re all about, being in touch and getting the help to the athlete in a timely manner.”
As an orthopedic surgeon, Russonella’s speciality is mostly knee, ankle, carpal tunnel, elbow and shoulder related. “That’s why we have a pool of other doctors if something else is required, like neurological conditions,” Russonella said. “We want to apply that flexibility to our practice. Again, it’s important the parents know what is going on with their kids and the responsiveness which is so vital.”
Many will find frustration when needing a doctor, or waiting in an emergency room, for help. That’s something Russonella, a member of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, hopes to alleviate.
“We’re accessible, and that’s what I’m trying to make sure people understand,” Russonella said. “Like I said before, I grew up here and I want to be that person who can help when someone is injured. I’m committed to helping patients get over their injury, or pain, and get back to an active lifestyle.”