On finding that perfect fit for your particular lifestyle. These worked for me, and why I fought to keep them
No matter how old you are, you need a doctor who is in your corner. Not all of them are. As you age, you will find this harder, as ageism is rife in the medical community. This article addresses two primary kinds of docs that I've encountered (there are plenty of other kinds, but for the sake of simplicity, just two).
Let's set the stage:
I was nineteen. It was 1972, Central Florida. Not a particularly enlightened time, nor an enlightened place to be a girl. I had returned from Denver with a severed Achilles tendon with a horrible repair job, still in a cast, and a compulsive smoking habit. Five packs a day. That kind of compulsive.
The day the cast came off, Dr. Willy Steele, my mother's physician and a chain-smoker himself, told me in no uncertain terms two things that he absolutely believed:
"You will always walk with a limp. And you will always smoke."
The next day, I threw out all my cigarettes. I hobbled to the starting line of the 600-yard track at my old junior high school. My leg and lungs were both trashed at that point. I was nineteen. I walked and felt like an old, old lady.
I knelt, then pushed myself off the starting line. I stumbled, coughing, crying, limping, all the way around, once. When I stopped, I vomited. Coughed up blood. Took me a long time to get back to the car.
The next day I went back and did it again. And the next. And the next.
I never smoked again. After a few awful weeks, I never limped again.
Who's your doctor?
The people who treat us can do terrible harm or help us live successful lives.
Doctors are flawed, some terribly dangerous, others are the very ticket to our physical prowess. Psychologically doctors represent the same bell curve as the public they serve. They suffer from prejudice, racism, ageism, homophobia, fat phobia, and ignorance just like we do. We forget that the moment we see a white coat, and imbue the person with skills and wisdom they don't always possess.
This only underscores the god complex that some bear because of their medical knowledge.
I've had a lot of very bad doctors, some decent, some very good. As I home in on 70, after the better part of the last twelve years doing seriously difficult adventure travel, I've identified two kinds of doctors who motivate me. Those who get in your face and call you done for good, and the other kind.
I'll introduce you to that other kind in a sec.
Any doctor who does what Dr. Willy Steele did to me can have one of two powerful effects on patients:
- You and I believe the doctor and give up forever.
2. Or we flip them off and go get it done anyway.
Please note: that doctor does not live inside our body or our head.
They are not in charge of our choices.
If we give any doctor agency and authority over what's possible, we could end up living a horribly stunted life. Racism, ageism, ableism, fatphobia and all kinds of prejudices lead to mistreatment of patients. I've been there.
My response to such a doc is unequivocal.
You give me a doctor who flatly informs me what I can't do, two things happen:
- First, they're fired.
2. Second, I go do whatever they just told me I couldn't do.
Sometimes that's a gift. To wit:
In 2011 after a VA ortho doctor did surgery on my left knee, he kindly but condescendingly informed me that I "should be happy with 80% knee function."
Eighteen months later I sent him photos of myself on top of Kilimanjaro, Everest Base Camp and Macchu Picchu.
Captions: This is what 80% looks like.
I never worked with him again.
On one hand, I value the motivation that a negative doctor gives me.
One the other, why would anyone want a naysayer in their life?
In the last ten years, as I have ratcheted up my adventure travel life at the same time I have marched through my sixties, I have fired a lot of doctors. It doesn't take much to establish how they feel about me, a sixty-ish woman.
In the first fifteen seconds of your visit to discuss a bad shoulder or a cranky knee, you know damned good and well if they are on board with your badassery or if you are nothing more than an old woman or old man, who is taking up their precious time, one more in a long line of surgeries.
If they are pessimistic about my recovery and my willingness to do the hard work of PT post surgically, they will telegraph it right away.
Let's set another stage. Our attitudes about our recovery, and that includes our doctors' beliefs, have everything to do with our success:
But here's the larger issue. If you're an athlete you have to deal with orthopedic problems at some point. The last few years that's the primary issue causing me to shop for surgeons, as shoulders, knees, ankles, feet have gotten badly injured due to my lifestyle of hard training and even harder sports.
I moved to Eugene in 2020. That meant learning a brand new system via the local VA Clinic. It also meant that, after a bad car accident and years of sports, I'd have to locate new surgeons for shoulders, hands and feet.
If I want to keep doing what I love to do, lots of repairs were necessary.
I ended up with two of that kind, after firing a few in the process. One, who is very popular with everyone from the nurses to his staff to all of us who use him, has a terrific bedside manner, calls your contacts after surgery personally to let them know you are good, and above all, sees you for what you are. He doesn't layer your meeting with -isms which make conversations difficult and true healing impossible.
Dr. B expects me to do the PT. He already knows that I'm committed, and is delighted when I show up months ahead in my post-surgical progression. I fought to make sure that he would do all my shoulder and hand surgeries, not just because he's a damned good surgeon, but because he has my back.
For example, when a bad night on the couch dislodged an anchor in my shoulder after our first surgery, the doctor who did the ultrasound didn't validate what I knew was wrong. Dr/ B believed me; we did an MRI, and I was right. We had to do another surgery to correct the problem. The point?
That's priceless. By now, Dr. B has done two shoulder surgeries and one hand. I am over the moon about the results. We do one more hand in February. I'd sleep in a tent in town if I had to in order to have this guy do the work on me. That's how much a good doctor is worth when your best possible health outcome is in the balance.
My other fave doctor, Dr. H, does foot and ankle work. I had to wait months to get in, and when I did, after firing a self-righteous angry old man podiatrist in the process, I was delighted. Not only did Dr. H get it that I have a Beast Mode attitude towards life but that I had every intention of doing all the necessary work to get back on the hiking trails.
I knew Dr. H was my doc when she drew me a picture of what needed to be done. I love doctors who educate. That loops you into the process of understanding your body's mechanics and how to get well after you get cut.
It took no time for us to determine the real issue, schedule the tests. The first foot surgery is already behind me. We had to reschedule due to some pre-surgery issues but she had my back. We moved the date and to another facility. I felt safer, and that absolutely ensures a better outcome.
But here's the acid test:
When I saw her this past week, she made it clear that she was going to push me a bit in the recovery process. That I was to throw myself back into workouts for every other body part but the foot.
You cannot begin to imagine the effect of those words on me.
A good coach in any profession sets the expectations high. They communicate to you that first, they know you're going to surpass those expectations. And they also know that by doing so, we the patients are going to love the challenge of proving them right.
We want that high fiver.
That's the other kind of doctor. The kind who sets the bar high, communicates faith in your willingness to take responsibility for your healing, health and your habits, and in every way backs you on the recovery process.
A great physician is also a coach, because you and I are in charge of the healing process.
Doctore, from the Latin, means to teach.
That is the secret sauce.
That is what makes the difference, for this aging athlete, between a surgeon who simply has the technical skills, and one who returns you to another level of performance at the end of your PT. A good doc teaches you about your body, and invites you to fully engage with the healing process that only you can fully manage.
They expect you to recover well, and head out the door ready to take on the world.
I will likely end up with enough metal parts to set off the airport alarms. Those corrections are the price I pay for a seriously badass life. I turn seventy in just about a month. These coming months up on blocks with damned good surgeons doing the inner work to get me back on the road again are worth it.
Got a surgeon? Is your surgeon also a coach? And if so, what kind? The kind that knows there is a high performer in you that needs encouragement through the inevitable pain of recovery?
Or the kind who can't be bothered answering questions or having your back?
Fight for your best doctor. That kind. And watch what happens when you hit the road running again.
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