Dr. Salter was my orthopedic surgeon, and a very special man. He set my expectations for what it means to be a patient, and what it should mean to be a doctor.
It probably seems strange to love and admire a man I barely knew, but many of his patients will understand. And if you are lucky, you might have experienced a doctor like him.
He was one of the most renowned doctors of his time and people in the medical field know the name whether or not they knew the man. He pioneered devices and treatments and wrote books that are still used today.
But that isn’t why I loved him. I loved him for who he was.
How We Met
When I started walking my mother knew something was wrong. I walked like a duck, with my back arched, my stomach out and a waddle. My mother spent months of fighting with my pediatrician, who labeled my mother hysterical and overprotective. Finally, we got a second opinion and a referral to the children’s hospital.
The minute I walked into his office he knew what was wrong. “She’s one of mine” he said. And then he explained to my mother what was wrong, and that it was in no way her fault. I had lost the genetic lottery, that’s all. He proceeded to remove the “hysterical” letter from my file and tear it up.
So, at 18 months old, he diagnosed me with bilateral congenital hip dysplasia. While hip dysplasia is fairly common, my case was not. I had the most extreme case and it was bad on both sides, which was unusual. I would require some long term hospitalization, multiple surgeries and body casts. No one knew exactly how long it would take. The alternative was not to be able to walk by the time I was 5 years old.
“One of His”
And I became “one of his”, and he was in it with us. I came to love him like a grandfather.
Over the next 10 years I saw him every year. Sometimes it was for months, as I was put into traction and through surgeries. Sometimes it was only a few days while I was assessed. The balance was crucial, I needed to have multiple surgeries, but I needed to be strong enough. Finding the right timing for each step was critical.
Over all those years and all of those procedures and all of that pain, his was the first face to greet me every morning and the last to say goodnight. I am so grateful to his own children for lending him to me, because I know that when I needed him, it meant they missed him.
And he taught me so much.
Egos Are Overrated
He taught me that humanity came before achievement. This man was inducted into the Medical Hall of Fame and was never too important to treat his patients, their parents and nurses with respect. He believed in the mind, body and spirit. He felt he had a responsibility to consider all of it, not just the parts he specialized in.
When you are in a teaching hospital, as mine was, it is not unusual to have a group of doctors and wannabes walk up to your bedside, throw back the covers and start talking about you and poking at you without any introduction. But Dr. Salter had taught me better than to be intimidated by this. I may not have realized how important he was, but I knew he expected more from his interns and peers.
Being his patient, I would introduce myself and ask them who they were. It would often shake them out of their routine and remind them of the person attached to the file. I don’t think I ever would have felt entitled to do that if not for Dr. Salter.
When I was a kid, I had a letter, the gist of which read: “Amy knows what she can do and should only do something if she is comfortable.” This letter was on file with my school and anywhere else I participated. He knew I would push myself and taught me how to do so safely. To listen to my body, to take baby steps and not to be afraid to try.
As a result, I skied, I danced, I skated, and I participated in every other activity the other kids did, and had a relatively normal childhood. Once in a while, I would look at a situation and say that’s not for me, but not often. I never felt disabled, whether I was or not. But I did feel like I owned my body and my choices, which is pretty powerful for a child.
He taught me to trust in my own ability to judge my capabilities and it still pays off to this day. When I had my hip replacements more than one doctor and physiotherapist commented that I could understand my body and its feelings and articulate it better than anyone they’d seen.
Dr Salter was never bothered by questions. My mother was scared and protective and he kept her informed of everything and entitled her to ask him anything. Through him she felt entitled to question and challenge my care. And he took questions anytime. So when my mother caught me across the room from my crutches a month before I was supposed to give them up, he took her call. When she came home and found me on my bike instead of my wheelchair he took the call. And when I wanted to go downhill skiing and all she could envision was another body cast, he took the call. And he told her to trust me, but he never made her feel small or silly. She was a mother and she was doing her job, and he respected that.
Even I could ask him anything and he would answer me as honestly and fully as he could. When I was 11 years old and asked him if I might die in surgery, he didn’t pat me on the head and tell me not to worry. He took the time to explain the dangers of anesthesia and the precautions he would take. He told me how healthy I was and why it was very unlikely in my situation. But most importantly, he respected me as a patient and a person and my right to understand what was happening to me.
I am still like this, and most of my doctors respect it, and if they don’t I find a new one. Good doctors, smart doctors, respect intelligent questions.
He Left A Lasting Impression
The last time I saw Dr. Salter I was 12 years old. I had my last surgery with him the year before and things were looking good. He sat me down and told me what my future might be like. That I would develop arthritis one day and would have to deal with that, but that advancements were being made all of the time, so he didn’t know what my treatment might look like. He warned me that I would spend a chunk of any pregnancies in a wheelchair. And he told me not to run too much. And he told me I was fine, and that I would continue to be fine and to trust in that.
Once again, there was everything he taught me in a nutshell. And now, I have had 6 more surgeries with 3 more surgeons and his advice and teaching has held me in good stead. He taught me to be a good patient, according to my doctors and physiotherapists. And to be a fighter, according to me.
Over the following years, I started to understand how lucky I had been. My roommates in the hospital were so multicultural because children were flown from all over the world to see him. Every doctor I met wanted to check me out to admire the great man’s work. Before one of my later surgeries, I looked up the CPM machine I would be hooked up to afterwards, and there was his name as creator.
So, thank you Dr. Salter, not just for the fact that I can walk, but also for the fact that I am a whole and strong person and the fact that I continue to challenge myself. Thank you for setting an example that few can meet, but that we can all aspire to. Thank you for not just being brilliant and driven, but also for being compassionate and caring.
My Message to You
And to all other doctors and patients that may read this. The journey on which you embark is a partnership, where you need to trust the other to do what is right and what is best for the outcome. This means a great responsibility on both sides. The doctor needs to put their patient above their ego, treat the person as just that, not just as a body in a bed. The patient needs to trust and question, and to follow advice and to challenge it at the same time, both are artfully difficult balances. But most of all our expectations of each other need to be high but fair. And communication is everything.