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When Doctors Need Doctors: From Pain, a New Purpose

Grace Dammann, MD, Medical director, Laguna Honda Hospital Pain Clinic

Grace Dammann, MD

Dr. Grace Dammann

 

It was just a normal day. I had picked my daughter up at school in the city, and I was late for a dental hygiene appointment in Marin. So when we reached the Golden Gate Bridge, I drove in the left lane—something I’d never done in all my years of driving over it. My daughter was sitting beside me in the front seat, working on her homework about the French Revolution. My dog was in the backseat.

I don’t remember anything about the accident. One thing I can remember is saying to the state police, “Do not let me pass out until I get to the ER.” I knew enough to know that my daughter and I would not be taken to the same place—she wasn’t badly injured. I remember saying, “You’re going to be just fine, sweetie.” The next thing I remember is waking up 45 days later.

By the time I got to the ER, my blood pressure had bottomed out and I was going into shock. They took me straight to the operating room. I went through 54 units of blood—five times my blood capacity—in the next 24 hours: They sewed up several arterial tears, repaired my ripped diaphragm, opened me up from hip to sternum, and fixed all that was broken. They brought me back to the OR every day for the next six or seven days.

As a physician, I know that it’s nothing short of remarkable that I am still here today. My body should not have been able to survive that.

I’m extraordinarily grateful—and sometimes annoyed, because it’s not been an easy trek, being in this fundamentally otherly abled body, but I didn’t realize that for years. I was totally ecstatic for the first six months after I woke up, not because I was alive per se, but because I was doing everything. The first shower was just exquisite. I’d never noticed how great a shampoo felt, how great each drop of water felt.

Eventually, my doctor ran out of reasons that I couldn’t go back to work. Laguna Honda Hospital invited me to set up a clinic for people in chronic pain. That sounded so horrible, given the experiences I’d had. But I slept on it and said sure. There was no one else in a wheelchair on the medical staff, and it’s helpful. Patient after patient would come up to me and say, “How do you deal with what happened to you?” I have street credibility. I am in a wheelchair and need a lot of help, but I am having a great time.

After the accident, I brought a lawsuit to get a median barrier on the Golden Gate Bridge. I lost, which is fine because the board of directors of the bridge voted unanimously to build a barrier anyway. Both the guy who hit me and I went to the meeting, and we wrote a letter together thanking the board for that action.

In total, I was in the hospital for about 14 months and underwent somewhere between 13 and 17 surgeries. I’m never going to have another one—that became really clear to me when I had surgery for a small bowel obstruction. If I need a colostomy, I’m not getting it. This body has been through enough. But I don’t feel like I’m sick. I came out of this feeling like my life force didn’t want to go, and I’m not worried that I’m going to die soon. I’m worried about how I live with this new reality. That’s what I’m facing.

 

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

Getting Back to Life After an Assault
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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