Eugene “Gene” Alford, MD, was at the height of his career in 2007. As one of Houston Methodist Hospital’s busiest facial plastic and reconstructive surgeons, Dr. Alford, then 48, had performed 887 surgeries that year, including airway procedures and big head and neck operations.
Explore This IssueJanuary 2020
On Sunday, December 30, 2007, things changed. That day, Dr. Alford decided to visit his family farm in Bellview, Texas, while his wife Mary and their three children remained at home in Houston. To relax, Dr. Alford had been clearing brush on the farm while riding his tractor with a front-end loader.
A dead white oak tree lay in the middle of the area, and Dr. Alford approached it twice before trying to move it out of the way with the raised front loader. Dr. Alford didn’t know the tree was water-logged and rotted. When he began to move the nearly 1,000-pound tree, the top broke off and fell directly on top of him, crushing his spine. He knew, at that moment, that he was paralyzed.
Dr. Alford called Mary and was airlifted to Memorial Hermann–Texas Medical Center, a Level 1 trauma center in Houston. He was diagnosed with six broken ribs, a broken collarbone, a broken shoulder blade, crushed thoracic vertebrae, and pinched blood vessels in the spinal cord. Today, while he still has some feeling and function in his legs, he can’t walk and is paralyzed from the waist down.
After ten months of healing and rehabilitation, he realized that while he couldn’t use his legs, his hands, arms, and brain still worked fine. He returned to work in October 2008, using a power wheelchair that allowed him to sit or stand, and working out of an operating room with a specialized table. Dr. Alford focused on rhinoplasty, facial cancer reconstruction, and facial plastic surgery—and continues to do so more than a decade later.
“You can find an area that is your passion, focus on it, and become the best there is in your geographic area in that part of ENT that you love,” Dr. Alford said. “I think that is something I should have learned earlier in my career.”
Experiencing a major illness or injury in the midst of a medical career can be life changing. Along with Dr. Alford, several other otolaryngologists share lessons they’ve learned as they coped with serious medical issues and the aftermath that influenced their career trajectories.