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A surgeon battles her own unexpected complications

A surgeon battles her own unexpected complications

I first interviewed Stanford surgeon Sherry Wren, MD, a year and a half ago for an article about a course she taught to other surgeons on global health care. Based on her personal experience from medical missions to Chad, Congo and Ivory Coast, it was obvious the course was a labor of love. Here was a surgeon who was passionate about her work, and whose goal it was to overcome any and all obstacles to save patients – from using papaya paste for wound dressing to hand drills for relieving brain bleeds. She made use of a combination of her surgical skills, her physical strength and her love for her work to accomplish her goals. “You have no idea how physically hard it is to crank a six-millimeter pin into someone’s femur with a hand drill,” she told me then. “And I’m strong.”

When Wren mentioned off-hand that she was still recovering from post-surgical paralysis after her own neck surgery, I knew there was another story waiting to be told. Almost two years later, that story about Wren’s struggle to return to surgery following the partial paralysis of one of her most important tools, her left hand, has been published in Stanford Medicine magazine. My colleague Paul Costello referenced it here earlier this month.

This is a story about a surgeon experiencing what it’s like to be on the other side of the scalpel when something goes horribly wrong. In the piece, she describes what she felt upon waking up following neck surgery:

My left hand was like a claw. I couldn’t lift my left knee. Then my surgeon came to see me, and I recognized that ‘Oh shit!’ look on his face, because I’ve had that ‘Oh shit!’ look many times.”

Wren, who injured her spine following a deep-sea diving shipwreck, also talks of her struggle to return to the demanding, 10-14 hours surgeries that she excels at despite lingering damage to her left hand and the accompanying depression that blindsided her. I wrote:

It was the correct diagnosis. The correct treatment. There was no surgical error. And yet somehow, the veteran surgeon who makes a living with her hands woke up partially paralyzed. The unexpected complications included paralysis of her left hand and her left leg, and a weakened right hand. Already she thinks, Will I still be able to operate? Already she thinks, What am I if I’m not a surgeon?

This is Wren’s very personal story, one that she tells open and honestly. The experience of being the patient has made her a better physician, she said. And it’s a story that she hopes by telling, others can learn from.

“I thought a lot about whether I wanted to share this story,” Wren said. I, for one, am appreciative that she did.

Previously: Sherry Wren, MD – a surgeon’s road home, Surgery: Up close and personal, Stanford Medicine magazine opens up the world of surgery Surgery: Up close and personal and Stanford general surgeon discusses the importance of surgery in global health care

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