Dr. Bang Bang has the cure for what ails Denver's derby dolls
It's nearly 10 p.m. on a Wednesday night, and the Denver Roller Dolls have just finished a punishing scrimmage. The warehouse where they practice smells like a damp locker room as the skaters peel off their knee and elbow pads, wrist guards, bandages and braces.
While a few discuss a late dinner and drinks, others are groaning, nursing the old injuries — or new ones — that are common in roller derby. That's where Dr. Bang Bang comes in.
Dr. Bang Bang
A no-nonsense blocker and jammer on the track, Kimmy Kimmy Bang Bang, whose real name is Kim Wilms, is a foot and ankle surgeon by profession. Tonight, she whooshes past her teammates to the table where she's stashed her supplies. She unlaces her skates, frees her hair from her helmet and begins pawing through a black medical bag. Among the stethoscope, the reflex hammer and the scalpel she uses for shaving calluses, she finds what she's looking for: a fresh needle and two tiny bottles of liquid. One is lidocaine, to numb her teammate's foot. The other is cortisone, to calm her inflammation. Snapping on a white latex glove, she screws the needle onto the plunger and draws a milky liquid out of one of the bottles.
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The skater for whom the needle is intended glides over to where Wilms is standing. "Let's get stabbed!" shouts Ariel "Crash Dance" Quigley. Like most of the girls, Quigley is sweaty in her spandex and tank top, one strap of which partly covers a tattoo on her shoulder blade that says, in fabulous '80s airbrush font, "Nobody puts Baby in a corner." And like most of the girls, she's got some aches and pains — in this case, an inflamed bunion near her baby toe.
"No, she's shaving my toe first!" hollers Krystal "Gator Dunn" Sprouse, a long-legged skater who has flopped into one of the hand-me-down easy chairs that take up a corner of the warehouse, affectionately known as the Glitterdome. After examining one of Sprouse's injured fingers, Wilms promises to shave her toe callus the next time. Right now, she has to inject Quigley.
Such is the life of the roller-derby doctor.
A muscular blond bombshell with a sweet smile and a stare that can turn cold in competition, Wilms, who is 32, looks more like a broadcast journalist than a Roller Doll — or a doctor. But her teammates say that hitting her on the track is like running into a wall. Off the track, though, Wilms is quiet and easygoing. She lets her hands and her tools do the talking.
Over the past two years, she's operated on four skaters' broken ankles and helped many others with the sprains, sores and bruises that come with playing the fast-paced contact sport.
For the Denver Roller Dolls, one of the city's two world-class roller-derby leagues, she's like the team's in-house doctor, a medical professional who shares a love for derby and understands the havoc it can wreak on skaters' bodies. And she's critical to their health, especially if the team wants to return this November to the Women's Flat Track Derby Association Championships, which is like the Super Bowl of roller derby.
"She just has exactly the combination of experience and legitimate concern for you that you want," says Caitlin "Muffin" Krause, a former skater who broke her ankle so badly last year that her entire foot twisted around backward, like Linda Blair's head in The Exorcist.
"I don't know if other doctors would understand."
Wilms first heard about roller derby in the operating room at Rose Medical Center.
"One of the surgical techs started talking about roller derby. And I was like, 'There's such a thing?'" Wilms recalls. It turned out the tech had been a coach for the Dolls, and he encouraged her to look into the sport. That night, Wilms looked up the team online and asked for a tryout. She made it on her first attempt in April 2008 without ever having seen a real bout.
Then again, Wilms had been skating since she was three years old. She grew up in a rural town in northeastern Ohio on a dead-end street surrounded by woods. The second of three kids, she spent her early childhood trying to keep up with her energetic older brother. "I even wrecked on training wheels," she jokes. As she got older, she played nearly every sport offered to girls, including soccer, softball, volleyball, basketball and track. She also took skating lessons at the local roller rink. From the beginning, she wanted to be the fastest. "Roller rinks in the '80s would always have little races with kids your age," Wilms says, "and I had to beat them."
She went on to play soccer in college, but she blew out her knee in her first game, tearing both her ACL and her meniscus. It took her two years to fully recover from that injury, but it also cemented her interest in becoming a doctor. "Injuries fascinated me," she says. She loved the puzzle of trying to figure out what went wrong and how to make it right.
After graduating in 2002, Wilms enrolled in the California School of Podiatric Medicine, a four-year program in the Bay Area. She chose podiatry because of the flexibility it allowed. She figured that as a podiatric surgeon, she'd take fewer crisis calls in the middle of the night and have time to pursue other interests and perhaps have a family someday.
But first she had to do a three-year residency. Her top choice was a program in Colorado, a state she'd loved since taking a ski trip here years earlier. She got into the program at the North Colorado Medical Center in Greeley and moved here in 2006. "Basically, you slept, ate and worked," Wilms says of her residency. "You had no social life."
By the time she discovered derby, she was in the third year of her residency and hungry for a hobby. "I just needed an outlet," she says. "And roller derby is it."
After learning the basics, she chose a derby name — Kimmy Kimmy Bang Bang — and was drafted onto what was then one of the Dolls' two home teams: the Bad Apples. (The Denver Roller Dolls league has grown since then; there are now five home teams, two travel teams and a junior derby team for kids ages six to seventeen.)
As a doctor, Wilms is required to be on call from time to time. When derby practices coincide with her duties, she asks the coach to hold her pager. More than once, she's had to skate off the track, change into the extra pair of scrubs she keeps in her car and rush off to see a patient. "Once my teammates started figuring out what I did, I was presented with more medical questions and responsibilities with the team, and it's just kind of grown," Wilms says. "That's what's great about the roller-derby community. Everybody is so giving, and there's so much camaraderie. Everybody is so willing to help each other out."
It wasn't long before Wilms witnessed a true derby-related disaster. In 2009, the Dolls' then-newly founded junior-varsity travel team, Bruising Altitude, was in Greeley, which is known for its meatpacking plants. They were there to face the aptly named Slaughterhouse Derby Girls at their home track, nicknamed the Kill Floor. Wilms still knew people in the area because of her residency, and she invited one of the doctors who'd supervised her to watch.
It was a good thing for the home team that she did. In that single game, two of the Slaughterhouse girls broke their ankles and a third sprained her neck. Since there were no EMTs at the bout, Wilms and her guest stabilized their injuries.
"We didn't have good splinting materials with us," Wilms says. So they used what was on hand, fashioning makeshift splints out of ACE bandages and cardboard PBR boxes.
As it turned out, those wouldn't be the last broken ankles Wilms would see.
The first skater who trusted Wilms to piece together her broken ankle wasn't hurt on the track.
In May 2011, Amanda "Aim N. Buster" Cleveland was nursing a knee injury she'd sustained during practice when a teammate hit her from behind and sent her hurtling into the track. The pain was bad enough that she wore a brace during the day, but not bad enough to convince her to see a doctor. The brace had an odd side effect, however: Whenever she got up after sitting for an extended period of time, she found that her entire leg had fallen asleep.
One day at work, Cleveland stood up in this condition and felt her ankle roll inward. It didn't hurt much at first, so she didn't see a doctor. But the next day, as she was walking down the stairs in her apartment, her ankle wavered and then snapped, sending Cleveland tumbling.
"It was really the weirdest sensation," she says. "I could feel my foot dangling."
Unable to stand, she used her cell phone to call 911 and then to call her roommate, who rushed home to unlock the door for the paramedics. Though Cleveland doesn't remember much more after that, her roommate later told her that her first question for them was, "Am I going to be able to skate?"
At the time, it didn't seem likely. The break was so gruesome that the ER doctor took one look at her crooked foot and asked if he could take a picture of it before temporarily putting it back into place. Cleveland agreed, on the condition that he send it to her afterward so she could post it on Facebook. Soon after she did, she got a call from Wilms, who'd seen the photo online. "She called me and she was like, 'You know, I could fix that,'" Cleveland recalls.
Cleveland had skated with Wilms in the Denver Roller Dolls, though at the time she broke her ankle she'd switched leagues and was skating with the Rocky Mountain Rollergirls, the other major league in the Denver area — and a fierce rival of the Roller Dolls.
Cleveland was already scheduled for surgery with a doctor she'd never met, and she says Wilms's offer was a welcome alternative. A week later, she became the first skater to go under Dr. Bang Bang's knife, at Lutheran Medical Center, which is one of the hospitals at which Wilms has privileges to perform surgery. "I just was so much more comfortable having her do it because she knew what my intentions were — and that was to be able to continue skating," Cleveland says. "She knew how important it was to me, because it's important to her, too."
The next broken ankle happened almost exactly a year later. The Dolls' two travel teams were in Portland for a pair of bouts against the Rose City Rollers. The morning of the day they were set to leave, the two teams held a "hangover scrimmage" — a laid-back chance to skate against some formidable competitors for fun. Wilms decided not to skate that morning, but several of her teammates took part, including the long-legged Sprouse, aka Gator Dunn.
"I was jamming, and I was out there right behind one other skater, and we just kind of got tangled up," Sprouse recalls. "Our wheels locked, and when she skated and pushed with her left leg, it literally folded my foot over." Shocked at the sight, Sprouse quickly popped her foot back into place. But when she tried to stand up, she says, she realized it wasn't really attached to her leg. "I told them, 'I think we need to call the ambulance, because I think my foot's broke.'"
On the way to the hospital, a teammate called Wilms and told her what had happened. Wilms spoke with the orthopedic surgeon at the ER in Portland and also instructed Sprouse to get copies of the X-rays, with the promise that she'd take care of her once they returned home. Less than a week later, Sprouse was in the operating room. On the day of the surgery, she changed the names on the hospital whiteboard to read "Kimmy Kimmy Bang Bang" and "Gator Dunn." An outgoing Southerner with a mischievous streak, Sprouse also gave derby nicknames to the anesthesiologist, "Painless Peterson," and the nurse, "IV Reitz."
The surgery was successful, but it was the follow-up care that impressed Sprouse the most. "She...made doctor house calls through this," Sprouse says, including a trip to Sprouse's home to remove the stitches post-surgery. "She definitely went above and beyond."
And although Wilms understands her teammates' desire to start skating again as soon as possible, she didn't let either Sprouse or Cleveland cheat on their recovery. When Sprouse started skating a mere three days before she was supposed to, Wilms wasn't happy. "She was like, 'You could break your ankle again!'" Sprouse says. "She genuinely cares, and it's not because she's making a buck.... She doesn't want her work to be destroyed."
A self-described adrenaline junkie, Wilms has the tan, fit look of someone who spends much of her free time on athletic pursuits. Aside from roller derby, she enjoys wakeboarding, skiing, soccer, river rafting and volleyball. "She's just really incredibly independent and strong to the point where it creates challenges," says Krause, her former teammate. "She'll talk to me about guys and trying to find somebody who can even keep up with her and isn't intimidated."
But while Wilms is aggressive and fiercely competitive in sports, her friends say those attributes are counter to her personality. The word most often used to describe her is "sweet."
"She's very soft-spoken and very go-with-the-flow," says Sprouse.
"I don't think people would ever know she's a skater," Cleveland adds.
In fact, some of Wilms's medical colleagues don't know. And those who do tend to raise their eyebrows, though Wilms says many of them are also fascinated. "A lot of people think it's extreme," she says. "They think it's an unusual combination.... Sometimes you get that look: 'You play roller derby? You're crazy.'"
But regardless of what other doctors think of the sport, it has allowed Wilms to develop an expertise in skating-related injuries — and not just those caused by roller derby. In February 2012, Wilms saw a patient who'd broken her ankle skating with her daughter at a Skate City roller rink. During the appointment, Denver mom Nani Gallegos complained to Wilms that she'd probably never skate again.
"She said, 'Don't say that! I play roller derby,'" Gallegos remembers. "I was like, 'You're a doctor who plays roller derby? That's so cool!'" Gallegos's now-eleven-year-old daughter, Lourdes, thought so, too. Lourdes had recently been to a roller-derby bout and fell in love with the sport. When Wilms told her that the Dolls had a junior league for kids, the grade-schooler was sold. She signed up and has been skating under the derby name "Hit Girl" ever since.
Lourdes says accompanying her mom to that doctor's appointment turned out better than she'd ever have thought. "I was all bummed that I had to go with my mom, because it was during the summer and...it's usually boring there," she explains. "But after I joined [the league], I was glad that I went. I was sad that my mom broke her ankle, but it was kind of lucky too."
About three months later, in May 2012, Roller Doll Samantha "Claudia ShankHer" Montgomery was skating in a scrimmage when her right foot skidded to a halt, as if it were glued to the track, and she heard a crack.
She wanted to believe it was just a sprain, but after spending a sleepless night in pain, she knew the injury was more serious. A trip to an urgent-care clinic confirmed it: Montgomery had broken one of the bones in her ankle. Having previously seen Wilms for plantar fasciitis, a torn ligament in her foot and a pulled muscle, Dr. Bang Bang was Montgomery's first call.
"Just having somebody who knows what I do, who knows how you move when you skate," makes a difference, Montgomery says. Seven screws and one metal plate later, Montgomery is skating again — as are Sprouse and Cleveland.
Broken ankles aren't the only thing Wilms sees. As a podiatrist, her days are filled with feet: foot fractures, torn ligaments and tendons, bunions, hammertoes and wounds caused by diseases such as diabetes. She's between full-time jobs right now, but she still sees patients part-time at several area hospitals and senior centers, where she trims the nails and assesses the health of elderly clients who can no longer reach their own feet. At a recent afternoon clinic, two women in their nineties chatted with Wilms about the specials at Red Lobster, the latest episode of Dancing With the Stars, and who's sleeping with whom at the nursing home where they live.
Wilms is in the process of opening her own practice, which she plans to call the Altitude Foot and Ankle Center, partly in reference to her derby team Bruising Altitude. And if roller derby continues to expand at its current pace, she's liable to have a lot of business.
Since its modern revival in Austin, Texas, in 2000 ("Skate City," February 18, 2010) as a sexier incarnation of its 1930s-era predecessor, the sport now includes 176 leagues affiliated with the Women's Flat Track Derby Association; another 119 leagues are vying to join. Colorado alone is home to eight WFTDA-member leagues, in Denver, Pueblo, Fort Collins, Salida, Colorado Springs, Greeley and Castle Rock.
Denver's leagues are two of the best. In 2010, the Rocky Mountain Rollergirls won the WFTDA championships and the coveted Hydra Trophy, a silver skate artfully mounted upon a base of twisted metal. In 2009 and again in 2012, the Dolls placed third in the championship tournament. With this season now under way, the Dolls — the league formed when several skaters broke off from the Rollergirls in late 2005 — are ranked second in the nation, according to the WFTDA, while the Rollergirls are ranked fourteenth.
Like many derby girls, Wilms skates on more than one team within the league. She's actually on three: the all-star travel team, called the Mile High Club, which competes in national tournaments; the junior-varsity travel team, Bruising Altitude; and home team the Bad Apples.
What makes her unique, however, is her profession. Although other teams boast nurses, paramedics and firefighters, in her five years of derby, Wilms has never met another doctor.
The most recent skater on whom Wilms operated wasn't as lucky as some of her other patients. Krause, aka Muffin, suffered the worst broken ankle that Wilms has ever seen, a hot mess of pulverized bone and shredded soft tissue that took five hours of surgery to fix. Seven months after shattering her ankle at an October scrimmage at the warehouse belonging to the Rocky Mountain Rollergirls, Krause is just now beginning to walk again.
Here's how Krause describes what happened: She was coming up behind a blocker, rapidly closing the gap between them and preparing to do a trick she'd been doing for years, in which she pretends to stop and then speeds away. But on that day, her move didn't work as planned. "That rapid stopping motion basically ripped my ankle off," Krause says. "My foot was backward as I was falling through the air, and when I hit the ground, my bone shattered."
The result was so disturbing that one of Krause's teammates took one look at her foot, projectile-vomited and then passed out. The injury scene has been memorialized in a now-famous Facebook photo that shows Krause sprawled on the track on her stomach, her left foot extended behind her with that skate pointing downward in a normal way and her right leg bowed out to the side, as if she were Army-crawling across the floor. Her right foot is pointed straight up toward the ceiling, and if you look closely, her right ankle looks a bit like a spiral staircase.
Wilms was scrimmaging at the Dolls' warehouse across town when a referee skated up to her and showed her a texted photo of Krause's injury. Even though an ambulance was already on its way, Wilms rushed over to the Rollergirls' track. Knowing that the paramedics would likely crudely cut off Krause's beloved skate, Wilms gently unlaced it and removed it.
The injury was especially devastating given that Krause had moved to Denver from Albuquerque the previous year specifically to join the Denver Roller Dolls. She'd been a skater since the early days of derby, and her goal was to skate with a team that had a chance of winning the world championship — a team like the highly competitive Dolls. The championship tournament was only a month away when Krause's eight-year derby career came to an abrupt end.
From the moment she realized her ankle was broken, Krause was adamant that she wanted Wilms to fix it. She'd seen the magic Wilms had worked on Sprouse and Montgomery, and she knew that her teammate did excellent work. But before she could schedule a surgery date, she had to overcome an expensive hurdle: Unlike the other skaters, Krause didn't have health insurance. One of her teammates quickly set up an online fundraiser, and within a week, derby girls from around the world had donated more than $5,000.
But while that money went a long way toward covering her ambulance ride and her visit to the ER, it was far short of the $70,000 Krause needed for surgery. Wilms had an answer. She knew of a state program called the Colorado Indigent Care Program that pays for medical procedures for residents who meet certain income requirements, and she helped Krause enroll, even driving her to appointments with the program's financial-assistance counselor.
"Kimmy started advocating for me right away," Krause says. "She took time out of her day and went with me to make sure I understood all of the paperwork and the process."
Two weeks later, Wilms began what would be her most complicated ankle repair to date. "We knew her fibula was in a few pieces, but we didn't expect seven tiny pieces," Wilms says. Krause describes what the surgeons found inside her ankle as "bone shards and dust." Although Wilms and the doctors who were assisting her patched the bones back together the best they could, there were a few small pieces that couldn't be reattached. Krause took them home in a doggie bag; she says a skater on the New York City team Gotham Girls Roller Derby has promised to make her a Flintstones-style necklace out of the bone shards.
Krause actually needed two surgeries to fix her ankle, and Wilms performed both. "After the second surgery, we got a massive snowstorm and my pain meds were not strong enough, and they were making me sick," Krause says. "She came to the house where I was staying, in the snowstorm, to write me a new prescription for something that would work." Even now, Krause says, "she texts me every week and asks about me and sees how things are doing."
Krause is now recovering in Texas, where she has family. But she hopes to return to Colorado — and to roller derby. Though she may never compete again, she says she'll always be involved, perhaps as a volunteer or referee. "There's no way that after everything everybody did for me that I would not do it," she says. "It's fun. It's like a family."
And Wilms is a big part of that. "People still have an image of [roller derby] that detracts from her sense of being a professional," Krause says. "But I don't think she cares. Her concern is being the best doctor she can be and helping her friends and living the best life that she can. It might take the world a while to come around to it, but I think she's going to be very successful."
If Wilms's reputation isn't enough to draw in broken and battered skaters, she now has excellent advertising: a fresh tattoo above Sprouse's surgery scar that says "Dr. Bang Bang was here."
The tattoo was Sprouse's idea. "Initially, what I wanted was an 'X' and then Kimmy's signature" along the line of the scar, she says. "But Kimmy was like, 'Gator! You can't do that!' and was so embarrassed about it.... I'm like, 'Kimmy, I don't think you understand. You put my foot back on my leg.' I needed that, and I really appreciate it, and this is what I want to do."
So Sprouse came up with a compromise: the words "Dr. Bang Bang was here" in Wilms's handwriting and an arrow pointing to the four-inch scar that runs vertically down the side of her ankle. On a Thursday night in early May, Sprouse and Wilms met up at a tattoo shop in Boulder where another Dolls skater, Amanda "The Swiss Missile" Sharpless, is an artist.
As Wilms watched and a derby photographer snapped pictures, Sharpless inked the doctor's neat, girlish handwriting into her teammate's leg. "It's like surgery," Wilms noted, a huge smile on her face as she leaned in close.
"No," Sprouse said, "because in surgery you wouldn't let me stay awake and talk to you."
Over the buzz of the tattoo gun, the skaters traded injury war stories, chatted about the upcoming weekend's bout and joked about "boob tagging," a game whose rules are just what you'd imagine. When the tattoo was finished, a beaming Wilms dug into her bag.
"I brought my scalpel so I can do your toe," she told Sprouse.