It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s an… emergency medicine resident flying through the sky?
When Dr. Nate Hollister isn’t on the emergency room floor, you can find him perfecting his trapeze skills at the Las Vegas Circus Center. “I will work a night shift from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., sleep for four hours, wake up, do flying trapeze, and do open gym for another hour, then go home and nap,” Dr. Hollister says.
Hollister, who grew up doing gymnastics, first discovered his passion for trapeze during his time at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. While completing medical school, he assisted at a COVID testing site and proposed that medical students “should have the option to serve the health care system as fully trained assets alongside interns and residents in this unique time of need” in an op-ed he co-authored for CNN.
Because medical school, writing, and COVID testing did not sufficiently fill his waking hours, Hollister signed up for a trapeze class. Unlike the vast majority of people who have long since abandoned their pandemic pastimes – whether that be sourdough baking or writing the next great American novel – Hollister continues to make time for trapeze. In fact, he became so invested in trapeze, that ensuring there was a rig nearby was a deciding factor in where he interviewed for residencies.
Hollister’s new hobby and the connections he has made through it have broadened his perspective on how to effectively treat patients from this niche community. “[Performers’] injury patterns don't follow normal injury patterns. These are people that are doing really weird movements the general public is not going to be doing. Also, they are in a vastly different shape than the general public,” Hollister says.
Additionally, he has learned that performers may avoid a trip to the doctor because of how the doctor’s orders may impact their performance. “I've cultivated some trust in the community at this point in time, because I do a lot of this stuff, and I’ve heard some people [from the circus community] say that they wouldn't want to get flu shots because their job depends on them hanging from something with an arm,” Hollister says. He pointed out that the buttocks are an alternative vaccination site, encouraging the performer to get the vaccination in a way that didn’t interfere with their work.
According to Hollister, people are not always “in a position to advocate for themselves in these medically specific ways, because no one has explained the medicine on either side, so there's a miscommunication gap.”
In other words, he wants circus performers to know that there may be preventive and diagnostic care options that will have no or minimal effect on their ability to perform.
Because their livelihood is intrinsically linked to their health, circus performers may avoid a visit to the doctor. The financial stakes are especially high when considering that most circus performers are paid per show, which is where the tightrope balance act of physical versus financial health comes into play.
Paul Friedman, who has toured nationally and internationally as a circus performer for seven years, explains further: “When your livelihood revolves around you performing shows, that also means that the best option out there from physicians isn't usually the best option for a performer, and a great example is taking four weeks off or six weeks off to let something recover. That is four to six weeks without pay… So it is very, very financially devastating to a circus artist to get injured and not be able to get the medical care they need.”
Scott McDonald, who is also a professional circus performer and acrobat – “I do flips for a living,” he says – adds that, despite the incredibly physical labor performers do on a nightly basis, they do not always receive the level of care of professionals doing similarly taxing work.
“Circus performers are essentially professional athletes,” McDonald says. “A lot of us are, in a sense, retired professional athletes. You get a lot of world champions, a lot of Olympians and such who come through shows on the Strip, but unlike, say, the NFL, the NHL, all these major sporting leagues, we don’t get that same degree of medical attention, the specificity of medical attention.”
Circus Meets Medicine
McDonald, Friedman, and Hollister first connected at the Las Vegas Circus Center where all three train. Beyond a shared love of circus performance, they also connected over their passion for advocacy. With Friedman’s and McDonald’s performance backgrounds and Hollister’s medical knowledge, the three planned a first-of–its-kind conference, Circus Meets Medicine.
The conference, which took place on March 14 at the Las Vegas Circus Center, featured an array of speakers from both the medical and performance fields. After presentations, guests were treated to a series of performances from a contortionist, an aerialist, hand-to-hand gymnasts, trampolinists, and, of course, trapeze artists. After the demonstrations, the presenters came back together as a panel for a Q&A session, and, later, medical students and residents offered musculoskeletal ultrasounds for those interested.
Beyond its obvious entertainment value, the conference provided a space for performers and health care professionals to share and learn from each other.
Of the performers’ involvement in the conference, Friedman says, “We're giving them a platform to actually be able to talk about something that they care about, and, up until this point, there hasn't been a lot of ability for them to be able to talk about it. I want them to feel valued, understood, and validated.”
Moreover, Friedman hopes that events like Circus Meets Medicine will lead to more “research to figure out how we can help this unique population,” given the lack of medical research that currently exists, especially when compared to other areas of sports medicine.
Hollister sees the conference, which he hopes to become an annual event, as a space where Las Vegas’ current and future health care providers can learn more about one of the Valley’s unique yet prevalent communities.