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Monday, March 29, 2010

A Very Sad Story

I've debated for the last week whether to post this story because I honestly don't know how to take it. It's a damn shame that it happened, but there's nothing that you or I can do about it. It's a personal tragedy, and I'm damned if I can articulate any greater lesson or caution to be learned from it, other than, "Yes, it can happen to anyone." But I want to talk about it, because it bugs me, so here goes.

When I went into the surgeon's office for a followup exam after my back surgery last year I was told that I would have to see the surgeon's assistant because the surgeon was on extended leave for personal reasons. That wasn't a big problem for me because the assistant had taken part in my surgery and was familiar with my case. Then three months after my surgery, when I had another followup appointment, I was told that the senior surgeon was still unavailable, as a result of medical problems. I talked to people in his office and in the rehab group I went to; no one seemed to know what had happened to my surgeon, though there were rumors of chronic neurological problems that would prevent him from performing surgery.

A couple of weeks ago the doctor who's overseeing my recovery1 suggested that I talk to a surgeon again about procedures that might improve some of the problems that the previous surgery hasn't been very effective against. He suggested I see my original surgeon's partner, so I called up, and was told that my surgeon had returned and was seeing patients once a week, and that he would like to see me. So I made an appointment for last Tuesday.

It was immediately obvious what had happened to him when he walked into the consultation room, and he confirmed it: he'd had a severe stroke that partially paralyzed his left side. There was no effect on his cognitive abilities, language processing, or memory, but almost 9 months later he's still got a brace on his left foot to prevent foot drop2 and his left arm is extremely weak. He's not an old man by any means, I think he's in his late 30s, but he looks like 10 miles of bad road: his hairline has receded, he's lost considerable weight3 and his movements are not those of a active and confident man, instead they're hesitant and conservative, as if he's no longer sure what his body can do4.

Of course the irony of this happening to him at a high point in a career that's based in part on his ability to do exacting and precise physical work for long periods of time5 is not lost on him. It's especially keen as he was a surgeon in large part because he was very good at it, and he loved doing it. It' s extremely likely he will never be able to perform surgery again. But my hat's off to him; he could certainly decide not to have anything to do with medicine anymore, if he can't do surgery, but he's come back and is seeing patients and helping to plan treatments which his partner and assistant will actually perform. I surely hope that the satisfaction he gets outweighs the disappointment, if for no other reasons than that he is an excellent doctor and a really nice guy.

So there it is: I feel very bad for the doctor; having a stroke isn't worse for him than it would be for anyone else, though the resultant damage to the life he had is especially poignant in his case. I like him and am grateful to him for his work on me, so I identify more strongly with him than might with someone I don't know. But he's doing his best to come back from the physical damage, and is determined to rebuild his professional life as best he can, all of which is good. So why do I feel such a need to talk about his case? Is it just that I've found a good piece of gossip? I hope not, that wouldn't make me feel very good about myself. But what about this story should be told for what salutary effect on my readers?

1. He's a specialist in neurological and back/spine rehabilitation whose job is to make sure that the various other specialists, surgeons, therapists, and whatnot are talking to each other, and that there is someone who's watching out for the outcome of my treatment, not just the procedures being administered. I am really grateful I found him; he's the one who tells me when we need to re-evaluate how well my progress is following the expected outcome.
2. And I can sympathize with that: I've got braces on both feet for the same purpose.
3. He was in quite good physical condition before the stroke; not bulked up, but he looked like he played a lot of tennis or raquetball.
4. And I know that one too; that's what happens to anyone whose body suddenly won't do or does only with difficulty what used to be effortless.
5. My surgery lasted 6 1/2 hours; a year or so ago they'd done an 18 to 20 hour procedure that completely restructured the spine of a teenage girl with spinabifuda from C5 to S3. Shortly before my surgery, she was able to dance at her prom.

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