When we advance from residency to become a practicing physician anesthesiologist, we often satisfy some long-delayed gratifications. For me in 1990, that was a Harley Davidson motorcycle. Once my Cleveland Clinic colleagues learned that I started riding a motorcycle, they pointedly asked for my healthy organs to transplant once I should inevitably crash. My quick response was, “If I crash and die, I will make sure it is at 2 a.m. so you all have to get out of bed to do the case!”
Many years of safe riding ensued with my wife accompanying me on BMW motorcycles around the world to Greece, Norway, Germany, Switzerland, Mexico, Canada and Alaska. In 2009, I planned a different kind of trip – to ride high-powered dirt bikes in Copper Canyon, Mexico, with a group of fellow high-testosterone motorcycle enthusiasts.
As a type-A personality, I chose the most powerful bike to beat the younger riders with equipment, not skills. On the last day of the seven-day trip, I was riding way beyond my skill level and unable to negotiate a sharp turn onto a small concrete bridge. The bike and I went separate ways and I tumbled off the bridge, landing 20 feet below in a dry rock-encrusted riverbed. My buddies wondered, “What do we do now that it’s the doctor who is injured?” After a half hour of unconsciousness I was transported for six hours, sitting in the front seat of a pickup truck, to Chihuahua, Mexico. An additional half hour was spent searching for a hospital, which was only located after a policeman gave us an escort. Preliminary X-rays did not reveal any major problems. As it would turn out, I had sustained a small frontal lobe hematoma and a compression fracture of T6. On exam there were no focal neurological findings, except for a very irascible physician motorcyclist who wanted to return to the U.S.A. I am told I was using language in keeping with my frontal lobe injury, not with my job as a physician.
I was blessed since a close friend riding with me had immediately phoned my wife. She then contacted members of the top leadership at the Cleveland Clinic. I must have been a valued employee, since they immediately notified the Clinic’s Critical Care Transport team to come get me. The jet left Cleveland, flew as far as Southern California (since there were no lights on the runway at Chihuahua) and arrived in Mexico at noon the next day for the flight back to Cleveland.
Tests at Cleveland Clinic revealed the full extent of my injuries. Since I did not want surgery for the subdural or the T6 compression fracture (annoying my surgeons to no end), I was eventually sent home for a three-month recovery in a plastic back brace and the loving care of my CRNA wife. My attitude was: “Just give me a laptop computer, leave me alone and I will be fine.” The neurosurgeons did feel that my recovery might be more rapid because of my positive attitude and my constant need to keep my mind active. This was indeed a carryover from being an academic anesthesiologist.
I don’t remember much of those months. Eventually, I was permitted to return to work – first, in the office, progressing to half days in the O.R., and finally full-day clinical anesthesia. My colleagues had covered my responsibilities as Section Chief for Ambulatory Anesthesia. So when I returned, there was no work to catch up on. It was just like I was coming “back from vacation.” David L. Brown, M.D. had been my chair for only six months, but he supported me with no questions asked.
I once saw one of the senior leaders at Cleveland Clinic who had been very instrumental in dispatching the plane that extracted me from Mexico. I told him how priceless that act had been for me and how we need to use my story for recruitment and retention of fellow physicians at the Cleveland Clinic. He said, “But when are you going to stop riding those motorcycles, Walter?” I quickly responded, “We all, as physicians, do things outside of medicine to lessen the stresses of our job. Some of us drink too much. Some run around with loose women. I happen to ride a motorcycle.” He asked me, “So what am I supposed to do?” I concluded with, “I don’t really care. Just don’t tell me.”My children say, “Dad has changed since his accident. Must be his brain damage?” Yes, I have changed. I am blessed to have retained my mental faculties to continue as an anesthesiologist. But you don’t come that near to paralysis or death without it changing your life. People ask if I have any back pain. My view of chronic pain is that I can deal with it as long as I am still alive and not disabled.
Sadly, at the same time as my accident, a younger colleague from the clinic suffered a head injury in Miami. My colleague died, but I lived. Not sure why I was spared and he was not. God evidently has some plans for me. All that occurred four years ago. Now I make sure that when I ride my motorcycle, my wife is on the back with me at all times. We have since toured, by BMW motorcycles, in Turkey, Chile, Peru, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, and back to Alaska. Our next journey might be across Asia from London, England to Vladivostok, Russia. This job I have at the Cleveland Clinic is truly amazing. I work in air-conditioned comfort in the summer and perfect temperature in the winter. My fellow workers are the some of the smartest and most stimulating people in the world, and I get paid pretty well. Most important, I am respected by my fellow man, as a doctor. No one has a better job than me. No one.