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Sandy Kirkley, MD

The Night Sky Has Dimmed

Sports Medicine Loses a Star Physician and Friend

Tribute by Ian Shrier, MD, PhD; Julia Alleyne, MD, BHSc(PT)


In September, the international sports medicine community lost one of its rising stars. Editorial board member Alexandra Kirkley, MD, (more commonly known as Sandy), 40, and her husband, Michael, 42, died when their small plane crashed en route to their home in London, Ontario, Canada, from a presentation she was giving at the West Point Academy in New Jersey. Their sons, Colin (age 8) and Connor (age 5), miraculously survived the crash through the heroic efforts of rescuers and others.

Perhaps the best summary of Sandy's impact on the medical community and beyond came from a colleague who last year suggested that the Canadian Academy of Sport Medicine (CASM) honor Sandy as an excellent role model for clinicians, researchers, and parents. As with many things, there didn't seem to be a rush. We were wrong.

Sandy graduated from the University of Western Ontario (UWO) kinesiology program and a successful varsity swimming career, and then from UWO medical school in 1986. She completed an orthopedic surgery residency and master's degree in clinical epidemiology at McMaster University and later returned to the Fowler-Kennedy Sport Medicine Clinic in London, Ontario, to work with Peter Fowler, MD, her long-time mentor.

Sandy won the prestigious Richard O'Connor Award of the Arthroscopy Association of North America in 1998. She was an active member of the Canadian and American Orthopedic Associations, and was President of CASM from 1999 to 2000. She was involved with various journals and was chair of the International Society of Arthroscopy, Knee Surgery and Orthopaedic Sports Medicine Scientific Committee. She was a senior research scholar funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and The Arthritis Society of Canada. Since 1998, she had been the principal investigator for grants totaling more than $1.3 million. She had at least 41 publications, another 12 manuscripts submitted or in preparation, and had given close to 150 presentations at various national and international meetings. All by the age of 40!

On the day following Sandy's death, one reporter asked, "What made Dr Kirkley so special to so many people?" Was it her skill as a surgeon, her training in epidemiology, or her boundless energy? Her surgical skills were impeccable; her mentor, Dr Fowler, asked her to operate on his daughter. Her insightful thinking made her an exceptional researcher. Not least, she was unconditionally devoted to her two sons. She also possessed a gifted determination; her mother tells the story of how excited Sandy was to start her very first day of school, only to come home at the end of the day disappointed because all the other kids wanted only to play, and Sandy wanted to learn.

Sandy shone for different people for all of these many reasons. But for her colleagues, it was her honesty, her genuine belief that we should strive to be our best, and the help she provided to others to do likewise. When she disagreed with you, she encouraged you to develop the argument so that it was stronger, and she would help supply the tools and information to improve. During the time we served on the CASM Board of Directors with Sandy there were many heated discussions. Whereas others accepted mediocrity, Sandy made us question everything we did. If we didn't want to try and improve something, we needed to explain why. Being content with the status quo was simply not an option.

Whenever we lose someone, we grieve the emptiness of lost hope and cling to special memories. Yet, in honor of Sandy's fortitude and leadership, we are motivated to carry on her work. She was admired. She inspired. We will fondly remember her.


Ian Shrier, MD, PhD
Julia Alleyne, MD