Circling back

St. Clair Health’s Orthopedic Surgeon, Dr. James Mullen. /Photo: John Schisler

Jim Mullen probably should have known he would wind up back in Mt. Lebanon in some way. After all, he was Lebo Class of ’05 and his wife, then Kristen Campbell, was Class of ’07, but they didn’t start dating until both were living in New York City.

“Everything always seems to circle back,” said Mullen, an orthopedic surgeon who since the fall has been working with the St. Clair Medical Group Orthopedic Surgery practice out of St. Clair Hospital and the Dunlap Family Outpatient Center.

He specializes in the upper body–from the shoulder to the fingers–and in all manner of medical issues, from those that do not require surgery to arthroscopic procedures to joint replacement, and for all ages.

Mullen grew up on Valleyview Road, his wife on Terrace Drive.

After a notable high school sports career as an all-conference running back in football and two-time All-American in lacrosse–along with shoulder surgery that helped shape his path to his specialty–Mullen’s journey took him away from his hometown.

He attended Dartmouth, where he continued his career in football and lacrosse and, with no specific pre-med major available, somewhat surprisingly majored in economics, although he took science courses that could be geared to pre-med and had a minor in chemistry. That’s what worked best for his academics and his athletic schedule.

“My whole plan all along was to go to medical school,” Mullen said. “I always thought I wanted to do orthopedics.”

He went to Temple for medical school, then spent six years in New York for his residency and fellowship training. More than three years ago, he and Kristen returned to the Pittsburgh area, where he joined a private practice as well as working with UPMC trainees.

Mullen counts among his influences the late Freddie Fu, a renowned UPMC surgeon and sports medicine specialist who had a relationship with Lebo athletics and for some years manned the sideline at high school games.

“He was an inspiration for a lot of people,” Mullen said, adding that Fu, a fellow Dartmouth graduate, was always accessible and helpful. “Early on I would say he was a bit of a mentor. I never trained with him, but we always kept in touch.”

It was Fu who performed shoulder surgery on Mullen when he was 17, just after his senior football season. His shoulder had become a chronic problem, with frequent dislocations.

“So I got surgery, and it helped quite a bit,” Mullen said. “That kind of sparked my interest” in orthopedic medicine.

It also helps Mullen relate to his patients who need surgery, especially young ones.

“I can tell them, this is my experience, tell them what to expect, because I actually had it,” he said. “If you’re young, you can be really nervous.”

Not that being a surgeon means Mullen is eager to repair all problems surgically. He estimates that only about 10 percent of patients he sees in his office need surgery. Many can be helped with things such as physical therapy, injections, or even just assurances that, for instance, a cyst is not something serious.

And he’s happy to be doing that while rediscovering Mt. Lebanon. He remembers going to Chicago’s Pizza in a plaza that was torn down to make way for the Dunlap building. He remembers a lot of things.

“It’s definitely changed, like some of the businesses on Beverly (Road), but there’s still so many of the same staples that have been there forever, which I think is really cool,” Mullen said. “The one thing that I think is so unique to Mt. Lebanon compared to some of the other suburbs near Pittsburgh is there aren’t a lot of chain (businesses) and it’s these places that have been around for many years. The tennis courts, things are walkable, Bird Park, lots of businesses. It’s certainly a place that’s tough to beat.”

For now, the Mullens are living in Wexford. The private practice group he worked with previously had offices there, in Beaver and West Mifflin–you know, everywhere but Mt. Lebanon.

Will they relocate to Mt. Lebanon, further solidifying their reconnection with their hometown? Mullen wasn’t sure, but, as he noted, things do tend to circle back.