On July 17 of this year, I journeyed from Charlottesville Virginia, where I live, to Seattle to have my cervical spine rebuilt at Virginia Mason Medical Center, whose Neuroscience Institute has a national reputation for telling patients they don’t need surgery. It was my fifth complex surgical episode in 29 months, after more than fifty years of great health. My patient experience has been wrenching, and it made me question yet again the conventional wisdom about doctors and patients that dominates much of our current health policy debate.
None of these interventions was remotely elective: head and neck cancer, nerve grafting surgery to restore use of my right hand and a musculoskeletal trifecta- two hip replacements and cervical spine surgery. All five surgeries were successful, and I have fully recovered and returned to my busy life. The technical quality of the surgical care was flawless. Only three of the people who touched me were over forty, and three of the procedures were performed by women. It was stirring to watch and be helped by the remarkable teams and the teamwork they displayed.
In retrospect, it was dizzying how fast the acute phase of these interventions was over. I walked on my new hips an hour after waking up, and spent only three nights in the hospital after my spine was rebuilt! Most of the actual recovery, and large amount of the clinical risk, actually took place out of the hospital, placing a premium on preparing me and my family for the transition.