Late Breaking News
Wounded Physician Heals Himself and Uses Experience to Help Other Veterans
By Steve Lewis
MILWAUKEE -- The old saw goes, “Physician health thyself,” but for Ken Lee, MD, chief of the Spinal Cord Injury Division at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center, one could add: “And use what you have learned in your own healing to heal others.”
While leading a convoy in Bagdad on Sept. 12, 2004, Lee, who was then the colonel serving as the Wisconsin National Guard's chief medical officer, dismounted to help provide security after the convoy had stopped at the end of a road. What happened next changed his life forever.
“A car popped out and blew up about 10 to 20 yards from us; three of the eight of us were seriously injured,” Lee recounted.
He remembers waking up before being evacuated, but what followed is a blur of transports to two hospitals in Iraq and one in Germany before ultimately having surgery performed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, MD.
“I had an open-head traumatic injury, nerve injuries to both legs and to my hands and shoulders,” said Lee. Beyond the physical injuries, Lee also suffered from PTSD.
Being AT Home “Drove Me Crazy”
|Ken Lee, MD|
Lee was sent home after rehabilitation, and after several months returned to work. “I had to go back to work; it was driving me crazy to stay home,” he recalled.
Incredibly, he returned to work with a more positive outlook on life. “Overall, getting deployed and seeing what actual combat is like is a scary thing,” he said, “But being injured and surviving and thanking God for your survival is a great thing in many respects. I came back with a better perspective on life — on my kids, my wife and how to deal with time.”
This new perspective also has made him a better physician, he asserted. “When it comes to patients, the respect they give me is tenfold higher, and, at the same time, the respect I give them is 10 times higher,” said Lee, adding that this mutual respect elevates the level of care “several-fold.”
This holds true not only for combat veterans, but for all patients, he continued, and extends to veterans of all ages — although he concedes it’s a little easier to relate to the younger patients who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
His patients, said Lee, are very open about their issues and problems, and he is equally open about his own experiences and about their care plan. “I do not hold things back — even when others would think it was appropriate to do so — but they take it very well,” he noted. “In the past, I had to think more about how to do things most appropriately, but it just seems that now I’m connecting much better with my patients.”
Following his return to work, word of his experiences quickly spread among the patients, and Lee soon found veterans coming up to him who were not his patients and that he did not know at all.
“There was one young kid who had gone to war, suffered a small injury but was having a tough time with his wife and kids,” Lee recalled. “He came up and asked if could talk to me. I said, ‘I’m not your treating physician,’ but he said he just wanted to talk.”
They sat down and talked for an hour and soon discovered their experiences upon returning home were quite similar. “His first year was horrendous, so I told him how I dealt with it,” Lee recounted. Basically, Lee told the veteran that he ultimately came to realize that his wife and children had suffered as much as or more than he had, and that was how he started dealing with his mental problems.
“He looked at me and said he understood,” Lee recalled.
Sometimes, Lee finds that his experiences and the respect they have earned him enable him to provide “tough love” that patients might not tolerate from another physician. For example, he noted, it’s often hard for patients to wake up and go to physical therapy. One time, he overheard a therapist trying to coax a patient to go to therapy, and the patient responded that he was too tired to get up.
“I told him, ‘You need to get your ass up. Otherwise, I’ll take your [video game] privileges away,’” Lee recalled. “He said, ‘You can’t do that to me,’ and I said, ‘Yes I can.’ At that point, he said, ‘Yes, sir.’ There’s that mutual respect.”
The bottom line, said Lee, is that this mutual respect enhances the patient-doctor relationship. “They realize there is someone who’s like them, who has the medical knowledge to help,” he explained.
His own injuries have been particularly valuable in helping PTSD patients. “Recovery for me was really hard, because I was denying that I had PTSD; it was a miserable one year in denial,” Lee said. “My biggest assistance to these guys is telling them not to deny it — it’s not a negative stigma. A lot of times when you turn this attitude around it can help you recover.”
Rejecting “Cookie-Cutter” Care
While admitting he is a better physician than he was before he was injured, Lee strongly rejected the idea that other physicians should follow his care approach.
“I believe every physician has their own uniqueness they come with; I don’t try to emulate who they are, but they are all very good in their own ways and how they communicate,” he said. If his colleagues do have issues and they want him to get involved, he said, that’s not a problem, “But my own personal opinion is I hired these guys because of who they are. At the same time, I can be in tunnel vision, so I need someone to give me a check, like telling me I’m trying to do too much.”
If any clinicians ask his advice about treating PTSD, he continued, he gives them his point of view as a patient. “However, I realize what works for me may not really work for others either,” said Lee. “You can’t use a ‘cookie-cutter’ approach to treating PTSD.”