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When Doctors Need Doctors: Getting Back to Life After an Assault

Lee Ballance, MD, Retired doctor of orthopedic medicine, Kaiser Permanente Vallejo Medical Center

Lee Ballance, MD

Dr. Lee Ballance

 

It was the day before the Fourth of July in 2005, and I was riding my bike by myself near the Berkeley-Albany border. The bike path was reasonably busy until I got to an area where there was a bridge. A couple of young guys were hanging out on the bridge, and they found a 30- or 40-second window of opportunity when no one was there to observe them. As I passed, one of them jumped off the bridge and slammed me to the pavement and then struck me a couple of times. I got up and tried to get back on my bike, but I couldn't stand. I came to the conclusion that my hip was probably broken.

Physicians spend a lot of time thinking about how and where to get care: Do we want to be taken care of in a facility where we’re well-known, or do we want to be anonymous? For me, the fewer people who knew I was a doctor, the better. If they know you, you become kind of a celebrity and get special treatment, which isn’t always better. No one wants to wake Tom Cruise at 2 a.m., so they don’t check on you. You don’t get a rectal exam when you should. I also didn’t want to have to choose which colleague would treat me. Under the best of circumstances, things don’t always come out the way you want them to, and if I had a bad result, I didn’t want one of my colleagues to be implicated. Better not to be treated by someone I have to see every day for the rest of my career.

I knew that in general, I was lucky to have this injury now and not 40 years ago. The ability to repair and replace major joints today is just incredibly better. I would jokingly tell people in my practice that if an older person fell and broke a hip 40 years ago, you called the doctor and the priest, because there was a significant mortality rate. I wasn’t particularly worried that my injury was something that medical science couldn’t handle, but I was anxious because I was going to have major surgery, and it was going to screw up my life.

I had a type of hip fracture that makes it difficult to achieve a successful repair. It jeopardizes the circulation to the head of the femur, and I had some damage that set me up for future problems. There was a question at the get-go as to whether to attempt to fix it or go ahead and replace the hip. That was the surgeon’s dilemma. Deferring hip replacement is rarely a bad idea, because presumably the surgery gets better as time passes. It’s like buying a new car—as soon as you drive it off the lot, it’s a used car. We elected to attempt a repair, partially because of my doctor’s background as a trauma surgeon.

I was in a wheelchair for three months after the surgery and then on and off crutches for another six. I missed six months of work. I have a high tolerance for reading and listening to music and things like that, but it was nice to get back to work. I missed taking care of patients.

I’m not 100 percent recovered. A few years ago, I had a second surgery, and I have an artificial hip now. I expect a lot from my body, and I was surprised by how much time and effort it took to get back to a high level of function after my hip replacement. But I’m happy to report that I rode 100 miles three weeks ago. There is still life after trouble.

More Doctors' Survival Stories:
Beating Breast Cancer with Help from Beyoncé
A Superhero Surgeon Brought to His Knees
After Dodging a Death Sentence, Looking for a Cure

From Pain, a New Purpose

For a Workaholic, the Misery of Bed Rest
Sometimes, It’s Not the Doctor Who Heals

Working Through Lung Cancer

  

Originally published in the January issue of San Francisco

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