When the spine surgeon becomes the patient: 4 insights


Spine surgeons spend the majority of their days taking care of patients. But what happens when they're the one who's injured?

Four spine surgeons shared their experiences as orthopedic patients throughout their lives and how their physicians left an impression on them.

Ask Spine Surgeons is a weekly series of questions posed to spine surgeons around the country about clinical, business and policy issues affecting spine care. Becker's invites all spine surgeon and specialist responses.

Next week's question: What trends in spine surgery excite you most?

Please send responses to Carly Behm at cbehm@beckershealthcare.com by 5 p.m. CDT Wednesday, Sept. 27.

Editor's note: Responses were lightly edited for clarity and length.

Question: Think about a time in your life when you were a spine or orthopedic patient, whether for surgery or not. What stood out in your experience?

Brian Gantwerker, MD. The Craniospinal Center of Los Angeles: I remember I was about three days into my new practice. My dog was a puppy and she liked to pull on her leash when we walked. She tugged at the exact wrong time, and I stepped wrong over a gap in the sidewalk. What happened next was nothing short of an explosion up my leg. The sciatica was so severe I had to sleep on my floor for three straight nights. I barely slept. Thankfully, it abated and I avoided surgery. When patients come in with nerve pain I can tell them with confidence that I know how it feels. I think once you've been there yourself, you can empathize and take better care of people.  

Richard Kube II, MD. Prairie Spine & Pain Institute (Peoria, Ill.): I have not been kind to my body over the years with sports and weightlifting. Add to that a couple of traumas and here I am 11 surgeries (spine and general orthopedic surgeries alike) later. As an orthopedic spine physician, I have the benefit of being in the fraternity, so to speak, and knowing what surgeons to see for my needs. I have been fortunate to have four different surgeons with great outcomes 11 for 11. Ambulatory surgical experiences have been better than hospital experiences, though I would say all were good to excellent. I would say it was much easier to use my health sharing membership with Sedera than it was working with Blue Cross Blue Shield or UnitedHealthcare. With the [large payers], I had to argue a bit more to have work done regardless of how necessary it was. Once with UHC, I had progressive C6 and C7 weakness in my dominant upper extremity, and they were dragging things out. Frankly, if I was not a surgeon myself, having the collegial relationship with my surgeon who went above and beyond and the ability to speak directly to the UHC spine surgeon in conference with my own surgeon, I have no idea how long it would have taken to get the surgery or what condition I would have been in by that time. I have never had a delay in the health cost sharing model.

Todd Lanman, MD. ADR Spinal Restoration Center (Beverly Hills, Calif.): I've had several times in my life when I was a spine surgical patient. What stood out in this experience was my confidence in knowing that the procedure that was going to be performed would be beneficial to me. I knew that having artificial discs replaced would cure my back pain and my neck pain and that decompressing my nerves would relieve my nerve pain. I was careful to select surgeons who were experienced in each particular type of procedure that was done. So, across my 11 spine surgeries, I have sought the expertise of several different surgeons.

Yu-Po Lee, MD. UCI Health (Irvine, Calif.): At some point in our lives, we will be injured and need the assistance of a physician. I recall vividly injuring myself while playing basketball in high school. I was playing summer league for my high school basketball team and dove for a loose ball. I dislocated my small finger. The first thing that I felt was shock and pain. My next thoughts after that were, what should I do? I had sustained sprained ankles and many other injuries playing football and basketball. But this was something that I knew was beyond what I could do for myself. My next thoughts were of what implications this would have for my future. Would this injury debilitate me permanently?   

I was taken to the emergency room at my local hospital. The facilities were standard but clean. There were many other patients there in the emergency room. All of us were broken and fearful of what would come next. Eventually, I was seen by the staff. Everyone treated me with kindness and compassion. X-rays confirmed that I had a dislocated small right finger. I was seen by the orthopedic surgeon, who promptly reduced the dislocation and put me in a splint. I healed very quickly after that and was back to playing in four weeks.   

What stands out in my mind is how debilitating that injury was when it occurred.  It was just the small finger on one hand. But any orthopedic injury, no matter how small, can be very disabling. I was able to recover very quickly from my injury and go back to the life that I was living. We are all very fortunate to be able to practice medicine. Orthopedic surgeons and healthcare providers are able to successfully cure their patients and restore their lives. I was very grateful to everyone who was involved in my care and hope that I try to provide the same care and compassion that I was shown when I was injured.    

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