I quickly became acquainted with the practice of orthopedics during my childhood, as various boyish and overly rambunctious pursuits left me with over a dozen broken bones. Each break was relatively innocuous, at most fixed with some pinning; however, I became instantly aware of the gravity of orthopedic injury when my father broke his back on New Year’s Eve 2002.
I was 14, and he was driving me to a friend’s house when we were rear-ended, propelling our vehicle into head-on traffic. A millisecond of blurred, streaking lights were followed by a deafening, unbelievably violent collision; the cabin exploded inward and our car was sent into a spin. A second earthshaking impact occurred as we were broadsided by a second automobile, and then after several more revolutions our vehicle came to a halt. I frantically attempted to kick open the pinned doors of our car as my father yelled for me to get out. It was horrifying.
Ultimately, we were pulled from a back window of the vehicle by the dozens of passerby who had already stopped to render aid. I still remember the taste and electricity of the night air as we escaped the car, and the surreal feeling of cool asphalt as we laid waiting for an ambulance in the westbound lanes of Highway 71.
After reaching the hospital, I was relieved to be discharged with minor injuries. I was devastated to find my father in considerable distress, lying on a gurney in the hall of the emergency room—bloody, dirty and delirious. He had always seemed eight-feet-tall and bulletproof; but now, so frail, he looked like death. The doctors arrived to tell us that he had smashed several vertebrae, and without immediate intervention, was facing imminent and permanent loss of function of his lower extremities. The reality of my father’s situation was suddenly enormous, and in a moment my world was transformed. I consoled my mother as she wept, wrenching anguished tears like I had never seen, and I privately contemplated what would be the fate of my father come the morning.
We were fortunate to make it to the operating room in time, where we found ourselves in good hands. The surgery seemed to take days. We cried and hugged and cheered in the halls when the surgeons emerged and announced the operation was an initial success. The following days were marked with slow progress, as my dad advanced from wiggling his toes to moving his legs.
The day he left the hospital was a glorious one. He eventually was able to shed his cumbersome body cast for a back brace, the hospital bed left the living room, and he began the arduous process of re-learning how to walk. It was a grueling and gut-wrenching time of our lives, but we were overjoyed to have my dad back at home.
And incredibly, after submitting himself to a year and a half of further rehabilitation, he had basically returned to his previous self. He’s two inches shorter, walks for exercise now instead of jogs, and sometimes misses a few days of work when the weather changes, but it’s over a decade later and he can do virtually any activity he pleases.
This entire experience, which occurred during a very formative time of my adolescence, left me with a profound respect and gratitude for the practice of orthopedics and medicine in general. I have always emulated my father as my hero; he is an ER nurse practitioner, and I had always felt the urge to follow him into medicine. This was absolutely the most momentous event and process of my life, cementing my interest in pursuing medical school, and later, orthopedics.
My experiences in medical school since have included research, trauma care and general surgery, but the highlight has been completing my fourth-year orthopedics rotations. They have resonated with me as if the antecedent portions of medical school have been building to this crescendo experience. I particularly enjoy being an endpoint in the chain of consult who can definitively handle the matter at hand. I’ve always wanted to enter a specialty where the problem can be attacked and hopefully solved, like reducing a fracture, replacing an arthritic hip, or repairing a torn rotator cuff.
Most important of all, when I look out the trauma bay at the fearful and anticipatory family members of our patients, I see my own family reflected in their tear-stained faces. I think back to how I felt that evening, and think now that this is what I want to be doing. My clinical experience has shown me that the pursuit of a career in medicine is no longer just my boyish ambition, but my opportunity to return the generous gift that was once bestowed upon my family.