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When Doctors Need Doctors: A Superhero Surgeon Brought to His Knees

Andre Campbell, MD, Surgeon, San Francisco General Hospital

Andre Campbell, MD

Dr. Andre Campbell

 

Thirteen years ago, I was in Canada for a surgical meeting. I was carrying my son, but there was some ice on the ground, so I put him down. I heard a snap, and I thought it was a tree going down, but actually it was me—at 6 feet, 3 inches, I’m not a short guy, and that’s a lot of weight. I looked at my ankle, and it was independent of my foot. As a trauma surgeon, I knew that it was serious. I had detached my foot from my lower leg, and the doctors had to nail it back together.

I was in Canada, so I had to engage in the Canadian healthcare system. At the hospital, I refused the pain meds for the first couple of hours because I wanted to see the x-ray. I knew how serious it was, but the surgeon didn’t operate until the next day. The guy was really nice, but when I asked why he had waited a day, he said, “I knew you could wait, and I was at home having dinner.” On my second day in the hospital, I called the nurse and told her to take out my IV and give me my medication orally—I was leaving. They wanted to keep me longer, but I just needed to be fixed and get the hell out of there. Physicians make terrible patients—we think we know everything.

I had a trimalleolar fracture—it’s the worst kind you can have. The doctor told me that I’d be back to operating in eight weeks, but I actually had to learn how to walk again. The fall happened in February, and I couldn’t operate again until June. I couldn’t even walk without a cane until October. Being a surgeon is very physically demanding—you could be standing for 12 hours or longer. Instead, I was at home for three or four weeks and going to rehab with other patients at San Francisco General. I couldn’t sleep at night without medication. The experience was very humbling—it really helped me understand what it’s like for patients who are suffering and in pain.

As a surgeon, not being able to operate was pretty terrible. That’s what we do: We take care of business. We stamp out diseases and make the world a better place. I was the one to ride in on the horse and save the day, but I couldn’t do that. Something like this changes your view. For a long time, I thought that I was the only one who could do everything, but you realize that the world goes on without you. I don’t have to be the one to do everything anymore. The surgeon did an excellent job, the best he could, but I found the physical therapists were fantastic folks. Surgeons are great because they put you back together, but physical therapists make you the best you can be. It wasn’t until eight months after the injury that I started feeling almost normal. I’ve been able to get function back, but I still can’t do the things I love, like play basketball or run fast. It’s never the same, even though they tell you it will be perfect. Sometimes, we lie to our patients.

 

More Doctors' Survival Stories:
Beating Breast Cancer with Help from Beyoncé
After Dodging a Death Sentence, Looking for a Cure
From Pain, a New Purpose

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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