Develop a New Appreciation
A regular exerciser with normal blood pressure and cholesterol levels, Jayson Greenberg, MD, a clinical assistant professor with the University of Michigan Department of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery in Ann Arbor, didn’t think twice when he began to feel his chest tingling while on the elliptical machine. A checkup led to surgery; he underwent a successful quintuple bypass procedure in January 2018 at age 48.
Explore This IssueJanuary 2020
“You can’t ignore family history, which I have, and I was fortunate to listen to my body when it was telling me something was wrong,” he said.
Returning to work—a position he’d begun only two months before his surgery—was eye-opening.
“You don’t realize how physical our job actually is,” he said. “It’s a lot of up and down, bending over, upper body movements, examining patients, and performing surgery—it’s not a desk job. I had to take it slowly and build up my endurance physically and emotionally.
He also reduced his patient load by about 40% to 50% when he first returned, then gradually increased the numbers by 10% every few weeks.
The experience gave him a deeper respect for the patient perspective.
“You don’t realize this until you are a patient, just how much trust you put into your physician,” he said. “I spend more time talking to patients than I used to. I also write in a gratitude journal daily—you can’t recover from a big illness yourself. My family and friends were beyond wonderful, and I’m very grateful I had such a supportive department. You need to learn to accept help and ask for it, which was a somewhat foreign concept for me.”
Embrace a Non-Linear Approach
In 2001, Debra Gonzalez, MD, noticed her right eye ptsosis.
“Back when I presented with a droopy right eyelid, I had a busy practice and knew enough to know that that was bad,” she said. At the time, an MRI indicated she had multiple sclerosis (MS). She immediately began interferon injections every two days.
While her eyelid felt better within a week and a half, she experienced flu-like symptoms, and eventually developed an orbital pseudotumor, where the orbital fat in her eye swelled up. “Every other day, I felt like I was dying,” she said. Her physician couldn’t tell her if these were MS symptoms or side effects from her medication.
Ultimately, Dr. Gonzalez had to sell her Tennessee-based practice because she couldn’t continue to work as a surgeon. For the next decade, she tried to determine what to do professionally while at the same time striving to feel as good as possible. She did part of a psychiatric residency and then embarked on psychoanalytic training, but disliked it.
By 2010, “my health was better and I was feeling great,” she said. “I began to think, ‘Why can’t I go back and be a surgeon again?’” She sought second opinions and had more MRIs and, ultimately, was given clearance to return to a surgical career.
“My doctors didn’t know if I was in remission from MS, or if perhaps I’d never even had MS,” she said. It’s possible that perhaps food intolerances or leaky gut syndrome, both of which were less understood two decades ago, may have been the root of her health issues, she said.
Dr. Gonzalez yearned to return to otolaryngology. She took clinical medical education courses for didactic retraining but needed to find somewhere to do practical retraining. She reached out to her network of mentors and received three fellowship offers. Ultimately, she worked with husband and wife team Gayle Ellen Woodson, MD, and Tom Robbins, MD, who had the head and neck and cancer experience she wanted. Dr. Gonzalez moved to Springfield, Ill. with her 12-year-old daughter for a one-year fellowship at Southern Illinois University.
“I’m forever indebted to Doctors Woodson and Robbins because, without them, it may have been impossible to retrain,” said Dr. Gonzalez. “I hadn’t been working for ten years, and not everyone was gracious about taking me on. But my attitude was like a horse with blinders: I’d show up every day, work hard, and make up for lost time. Going back and having to retrain is eating humble pie. I was 50 years old and doing a fellowship. My eye was on the goal.”
Her efforts paid off: Dr. Gonzalez is currently an assistant professor at Washington University and chief of otolaryngology at the Veterans Affairs St. Louis Healthcare System in Saint Louis, Mo.
Her path has helped her appreciate all she has.
“When I was younger, before these experiences, I expected my life to be linear and on an upward trajectory,” she said. “I used to sweat every outcome, even if it was out of my hands. With maturity and these experiences, it made me grow. My attitude is different; I’m doing my best. Some things I can’t control, and that’s just life. I don’t expect that linearity. When there are obstacles, I will find my way around that. I have more confidence and peace today.”