Conquering an “American Ninja Warrior” salmon ladder requires strength, an explosive pull-up and coordination. The rest comes from within – guts, trust and full commitment.
It’s a leap familiar to Dr. Alexi Matousek, a Spokane cardiothoracic surgeon who has competed on NBC’s “American Ninja Warrior” obstacle course. He reached the city finals in Cleveland in 2017.
Matousek, 38, recently joined Providence Northwest Heart & Lung, part of the Spokane Heart Institute. He does general thoracic surgery, including minimally invasive robotic surgery, and operations for lung and esophageal cancer, as well as infectious lung disease.
But another medical focus is overseas, for his longtime work to improve health in a rural area of Haiti where he spent time as a youth. That outreach motivated his decision to try out for “American Ninja Warrior” – although he didn’t expect to make the show, he hoped that if he did, he’d be able to raise awareness about Haiti.
“I had made this film about our work in Haiti, so I had an idea that this was a story that people could resonate with,” Matousek said. “I thought, ‘Well, this ‘American Ninja’ looks like fun.’ I might as well just try it out and maybe I can talk about it.
“I had no idea I’d get picked, and I had no idea what I was getting into.”
Matousek played basketball, but training for the show required targeted workouts. He made seasons 7, 8, 9 and 10. Cleveland was in Season 9, when Matousek nearly made it to the course’s end.
American Ninja Warrior / NBC
Cheering him on were his wife, Sarah, and their now 11-year-old son Samuel and 8-year-old daughter Evalyn. The couple has since had another son, August, 2.
Matousek learned that athletes nationwide work out in specific “Ninja” gyms. He now enjoys the sport’s challenge better than doing reps in a gym to stay fit and sharpen motor skills helping him as a surgeon.
“All the ‘Ninja’ obstacles are engineered in a way so that it means if you go tentatively, you will fail every time,” he said. “You have to commit fully to the movement. The balancing obstacles are engineered so you can’t stay on them; you have to move fast because there are unstable things.”
Here, he continues to train at a facility built by Spokane’s Sandy Zimmerman, the first mother to ever complete an “American Ninja Warrior” obstacle course. Matousek plans to re-apply to the show, and his son competes at his age level in the sport.
Talking about Haiti
Alexi Matousek / Youtube
Matousek did get his chance to talk about Haiti on “American Ninja Warrior.”
“The way I said it on the show is this is an obstacle course, but there are people who face huge obstacles we don’t ever face in this country,” he said. “The movie we made was about a 9-year-old boy who had a giant tumor on his back, a fatty benign one, but it was destroying his leg.”
The boy’s mother walked about 16 miles with a newborn to get the boy into surgery.
“We took it off in 45 minutes, and we saw him twice two years out,” Matousek said. “He’s so proud to show us his report card, and his back is flat. It was just basic surgery, but it really transformed his life.”
Matousek’s early ties to Haiti helped shape his career. Born in North Bend-Coos Bay, Oregon, by age 9, he and a younger brother went to Haiti the first time when their parents taught at a school geared to families of U.S. and European physicians at Hospital Albert Schweitzer.
His mother instructed younger grades. Matousek’s dad created the curriculum and taught older kids. Matousek and his brother were among 15 pupils.
“We studied astronomy and got up in the middle of the night to look at the stars,” he said. “We studied coral reefs, Haitian history, painted the floor and did these demonstrations with LEGO ships about pirates and all the colonial powers.”
Duuring 1991-1993, Matousek watched his first surgery for a science study, which didn’t go well.
“All my friends were doctors’ kids, used to blood and gore stories at the dinner table,” he said. “Me, I was a teachers’ kid. We watched this operation and it was a gastrectomy; they took all these intestines out, and all my friends are fine.
“Me, my belly’s hurting and I’m getting nauseous, so I’d have to leave and come back, and then leave and come back.”
His friends dissected the stomach with an ulcer, but Matousek stayed away. “So that was my first exposure to medicine and surgery.”
As a teenager, he got over any squeamishness around operations. By then, his father was teaching in education at a Florida college. His parents returned to Haiti each summer for more than 20 years to live in and help residents of a remote mountain village 5 miles from the same hospital.
They supported literacy and other needs but mainly developed a micro finance lending program.
As their mother hiked to the valley weekly for perishable foods, he and his brother went along to watch hospital operations each summer. At first, it was to prove he could, then his interest grew.
“That’s when I met a lot of American surgeons who were visiting and got exposed to surgery. That’s how I wanted to do medicine.”
Research and Providence
Matousek earned a medical degree from the University of Rochester and master’s from the Harvard School of Public Health. He completed a general surgery residency and fellowship in cardiothoracic surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
For global health research, he studied why so few of the Haiti mountain residents had surgeries. Despite different theories, yearlong research showed the villagers got lost in the hospital – literally.
“The answer was they couldn’t navigate the system, so we started a program to do that,” Matousek said. The team advertised widely with megaphone for people who thought they needed surgery.
He helped examine 500 people placed on a list based on severity. At first, 10 people per week went to the hospital, and navigators assisted them at all stages before surgery, from records to labs. In four years, the program served 450 patients from that population.
“We measured before and after. The hospital record system is imperfect, so I can only claim that we doubled the rate of surgery for the mountain population.”
They developed surgery follow-ups similar to an HIV-care model in Africa, he said, where community health workers go into villages and watch people take medication.
With a phone app, Haiti navigators take photos of incisions at intervals for the surgeon’s review, and they complete a questionnaire about any infection, redness, heat, swelling and fever. The approach inspired a Rwanda study on C-section follow-ups based on Matousek’s data.
Moving to Spokane, Matousek said he was drawn here for many reasons, including being closer to family since his parents now live in Clarkston. Also, the group’s physicians volunteer in Rwanda and support his Haiti work.
And he has a mentor in Dr. Steve Nisco, a local surgeon devoting about half of his practice to lung surgery. Nisco does video-assisted thoracic surgery called VATS, he said, but the group wants to expand minimally invasive, robotic-assisted surgeries, which Matousek is trained to do.
“The robot expands our abilities quite a bit. It has a three-dimensional vision system instead of 2D. It allows you to miniaturize your wrist movements. I’m a fully trained VATS surgeon, but the robot gives you more abilities in the chest. It’s very good for tiny spaces and better visualization.”
Matousek thinks as technology improves, surgeons will do more robotic-assisted lung surgeries for tough cases. He’s following news about St. Petersburg surgeons doing difficult tuberculosis surgeries.
“They are doing it with the robot,” he said. When questioned, those surgeons have said it’s better for patient recovery and also that the technology helps them in these difficult cases.
“I haven’t been able to visit them yet, but it tells me soon we’re going to be doing the hardest cases with the best technology.”
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