Four games into his senior football season at Nutley High School, Michael Russonella, D.O., tore the labrum in his left shoulder. His team doctor never could quite pinpoint the diagnosis, leading him on a trip south that shaped his future.
“My shoulder never got better,” Russonella recalled. “My father was disappointed. So we went down to Alabama to Dr. (James) Andrews. We took a train – we didn't have money to fly – and he fixed me up. It was the experience of a lifetime and it stuck with me for the last 19-plus years.”
Having his shoulder fixed by Andrews – the country's premier orthopaedic surgeon who has performed countless elbow, knee and shoulder surgeries and counts Drew Brees, Michael Jordan and Albert Pujols among his clients – began the journey that led the Nutley native and Belleville resident to open the North Jersey Orthopaedic and Sports Medicine Institute, LLC, in 2009, with offices in both Clifton and Nutley where he treats everyone from pediatrics to geriatrics.
Although he is an orthopaedic surgeon, Russonella is best known in these parts for serving as the team doctor for both the Belleville and Bloomfield high school athletic departments, where he can often be seen on the sidelines helping student-athletes when they leave the court or field with an injury. He also serves as a consultant to the West Essex High School athletic department while volunteering his time with the Belleville and Nutley recreation football programs, as well as the Little League in his hometown.
And to think, that train ride to Birmingham, Ala., convinced Russonella to try to replicate the legacy Andrews has built through the years.
“From that day, that's what I always said I was going to do,” Russonella said. “I don't believe that I'm going to have that up here, but I'm trying to do what I can do. If I can give back to Nutley, Belleville, Bloomfield – the towns where we have family and friends – that's all I ask for.”
After undergoing surgery and graduating from Nutley High School in 1992, Russonella graduated magna cum laude with a Bachelor's degree in biology from Montclair State University in 1996 before graduating from medical school at the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine.
Following a one-year internship and four-year residency program that included training in joint replacement, sports medicine and trauma, he earned a fellowship in orthopedic sports medicine from the prestigious American Sports Medicine Institute in Birmingham while studying under co-directors Dr. Lawrence Lemak and Andrews.
In addition to being the staff surgeon at Clara Maass Medical Center in Belleville, Meadowlands Hospital in Secaucus, St. Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston and St. Mary's Hospital in Passaic, Russonella truly enjoys working with young athletes, emulating the kind of care he received on his fateful trip to Andrews' office.
After performing more than 400 physicals for Belleville High School's fall athletes upon coming aboard as team doctor, Russonella helped the Buccaneer football team cope with a rash of injuries including a separated shoulder and a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
“I know he's helped a lot of our kids during our injury-prone football season,” Belleville Athletic Director Tom D'Elia said. “He was on the sideline as our team doctor. He knows the kids – that helps.”
Although Bloomfield High School's football team avoided the injuries that plagued its neighboring rivals, athletic director Steve Jenkins is no less thankful for Russonella's services in his first season working with the Bengals.
“The main thing is he goes above and beyond. Whatever you expect, he does more,” Jenkins said. “He really cares about the kids … and he really cares about how they are doing. We really couldn't be happier.”
Russonella is happiest helping his patients. There are times he has left a football game, headed back to his office and kept a student-athletes and his or her family calm while dealing with an injury that devastated them.
“We get a call from a trainer, that kids in our office within an hour,” Russonella said. “We make ourselves available. I want to pride my practice on that.”