DuBOIS — Brothers Chris and Matt Varacallo – orthopedic doctors at Penn Highlands Orthopedics and Sports Medicine – have returned home to care for the community they love as much as their beloved late father did.
Chris Varacallo, DO, a sports fellowship-trained and board-certified orthopedic physician, moved back to the DuBois area in June 2015 to work with University Orthopedics. About a year ago, he had discussions to join Penn Highlands Orthopedics, and those talks included his brother, Matt Varacallo, MD, a fellowship-trained sports medicine orthopedic surgeon.
“I’ve been practicing here (in DuBois) since July of 2015 in preparation for Matt to come over here so we could work together,” said Chris Varacallo, noting Matt joined the practice in August 2019.
“The real interesting element of us working together is that we’re brothers, we’re both natives,” Matt Varacallo said. “We grew up here, went to school here and now we’re both fellowship-trained. He’s in non-operative primary care sports medicine and I’m in operative orthopedic medicine.”
A lot of times, patients can’t even tell them apart because they look so much alike.
“They confuse us all the time, but it’s just come to us and we can manage pretty much anything,” Matt Varacallo said. “Yes we do sports medicine. Yes we care about athletes, but I have this conversation all the time with patients. If you’re an athlete on Friday night at the football game, okay, obviously you’re an athlete, but some people, their sport is gardening or their sport is just moving around without pain or they want to get down and play with their grandkids. That’s still, in my mind, sports medicine because we’re trying to do what we can in the field of orthopedics and sports medicine to get you functioning optimally.”
“The goal is for surgeons, in general, is that you’re in the operating room more often,” Chris Varacallo said. “And that’s where my specialty comes into play, I’m very comfortable evaluating anything, fractures, surgical things and I can call him and say, ‘Hey, I have an ACL tear that needs a surgery’ or ‘I have this fracture that needs a surgery.’ And so what I typically tell people is, ‘You don’t have to figure it out, what’s under Matt and what’s under me. You just send it to us and we’ll figure it out and go from there.’”
And with fellowship training, Chris Varacallo said there are cutting edge treatments happening at Penn Highlands that they don’t do in Altoona or State College.
“They maybe do a little bit in Pittsburgh, they maybe do a little bit in Philadelphia, but there’s cutting edge things that he and I do and we (every doctor in the system) work together to do that,” he said. “Before knee replacements, we do a nerve block or I do a nerve block for the knee that controls pain after a knee replacement. All the staff orthopedists here are brought into that. We do that here, but they don’t do that anywhere else.”
“Some of the surgeries I’m doing here now ... the one specific to the ACL, I don’t think it had been done here probably for like 15 years or something like that,” Matt Varacallo said. “We’re both open to to bringing the newest technologies back to this area. And it does give us a niche.”
He said it’s interesting to sit back and look at how the two of them working together fell into place.
“And now it’s the evolution of how where one patient comes to see him and then they’ll see me or I need him to do something first and then they come back to see me and then I book them for a surgery,” Matt Varacallo said. “It’s a constantly evolving process, but it’s nice. I can tell you that with the other systems that I trained there’s nothing like this.”
The brothers are the sons of Luanne Varacallo, of DuBois, and the late Dr. Albert Varacallo, who was a prominent and well-loved family practice physician from DuBois who passed away in a bicycle accident in 2010. They have four other siblings, Natalie, Albert, Dom and Tricia – all but Natalie still live locally.
Being close to family was an important part of why both of the Varacallo brothers made the decision to come back to their hometown and practice medicine.
Chris Varacallo went to Ohio University College of Osteopathic Medicine in Athens, Ohio, for medical school, then the Cleveland Clinic for his residency and Palmetto Health/University of South Carolina, Columbia, South Carolina, for his fellowship. During his second year of residency, he married his wife, Elissa, also a native of DuBois, and they are now raising their three young children together.
“I was in those bigger cities and I had the opportunities in Cleveland and in Columbia to stay there,” he said. “And my dad had passed away my third year of medical school ... that also played a part in terms of being close to family, being home. My mom’s here. And so being available for her if she needed it was a pretty important thing.”
“There was a good support system in medical school and we really, as a family ... with the six of us, we really developed a closer bond,” he said. “Right now it’s awesome because out of the six of us, five of us are here.”
“Family is a huge component to it,” said Matt Varacallo, who attended medical school at Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine in Hershey, his residency at Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia and his sports fellowship at the University Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky.
“It was interesting, because when I was in Philly the city grew on me, although in the back of my mind I was always thinking about coming back here,” he said. “But when my dad passed away, I was between my first and second year of med school. And I totally agree with Chris, where it was that family support system that we really got closer out of that tragedy, and the healing process. I know we’re closer than we ever were before that. I just think that that reinforces the family bond that we have.”
The opportunity to help those in their community was another reason of wanting to return home.
“Initially when I was growing up, I did not want to be a doctor because we never saw our dad, he was always working,” Chris Varacallo said.
But in high school, he started to consider becoming a doctor.
“We’d go out to eat ... and we’d be sitting there and our dinner would take probably two to three hours because my dad would get stopped by multiple patients,” Chris Varacallo said. “And that really had a big impact on me because I’m like, ‘Wow, these people see him in the community, they talk to him, they treat him like one of their own and he treats them the same way and he has a friendly conversation with them.’ I saw the impact that he would make on their lives and I thought that would be pretty cool to be able to do that.”
He eventually mentioned to his father that he wanted to be a doctor and his father advised him to work at the hospital.
“If you want to be a doctor you got to start at the ground level and make sure you like it,” Chris Varacallo recalled his father saying. “So I worked as a nurse’s aide on the floor over in the hospital the summer after my junior year cleaning bed pans, getting water, putting water in a bucket for people and that kind of stuff. I really liked the patient interaction at that point. That experience really solidified my passion for medicine and my desire to go to medical school.”
“I was kind of the same way where I realized how hard my dad worked and how much he really put everything into establishing his practice and creating it in his own ideal fashion,” Matt Varacallo said. “But he was on call 24/7, he was on the grind 24/7, he really established such a high standard of care for patient ... and really I think it was the trickle down effect with us.”
“Like Chris was mentioning where he was at a very young age, taught that you got to work and appreciate how it is at the bottom and then that builds up,” Matt Varacallo said. “You build on the solid foundation. He instilled the same thing to me, so I think that that translates nicely and it’s interesting to see how it ties in because with sports medicine, I tell a lot of these patients is that I’m your surgeon yes, but I’m partnering with you. You’re going to become like family because I see them so often.”
“I feel a great responsibility to the people of this community ... to be able to educate them and give them access to high quality care so they don’t have to travel to Pittsburgh, Altoona or State College,” Chris Varacallo said.
“There’s so much pride in bringing that high quality comprehensive sports medicine care to the people in this community,” Matt Varacallo said. “I mean we were both involved heavily in athletics and our name was always in the papers. Then that ties into what our dad established while we were growing up. And then we continue it and bridge on.”
Over the last four-plus years practicing in DuBois, Chris Varacallo said he still sees patients who were his dad’s patients.
“He delivered them or delivered their children, or he was the doctor for their parents or something like that,” he said. “I get stories pretty much every day. It’s really cool to hear that and it kind of keeps his memory alive, taking care of patients.”
The brothers believe their father would be proud of the foundation he laid for them.
“He’d be beaming,” Chris Varacallo said. “I think about that often, about what he would say or what he would do, or being able to talk to him about things. And I try every day just to practice, to make him proud. To not let the people that just automatically trust the last name of Varacallo, because of him, to not let those people down and not give them cause to second guess what we’re doing.”
“My father really held himself to such a high standard,” Matt Varacallo said. “Not only in establishing a relationship and going above and beyond the clinical aspect of it. He was personable with them, too. And that’s a big thing for patients. I always saw that growing up and that set that framework for me. That’s something I go out of my way to do. I’m going to partner with my patients, be personable with them. Not only give them good clinical care, from my brother and me, but also having a vested interest in them as a person, too.”
Every single day since he became a physician, Chris Varacallo said he says a prayer on his way into work.
“I pray for my dad to intercede on my behalf, as a physician, to help treat people in the best way I can,” he said.