“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.” – Helen Keller (1880 – 1968)
I have never been one much impressed by celebrity. During my years haunting the halls of Walter Reed Army Medical Center (WRAMC) as a military clinician, I have brushed against my share of celebrities out visiting wounded veterans. I have witnessed the back of Tom Hanks’ head; I have noted that Jon Stewart is indeed short;, and I scared the hell out of Sheryl Crow when we met face to face rounding a hallway corner on a hospital ward (I have that effect on women). During my time at WRAMC, I had many such encounters, and even cared for the occasional national figure. None of these events really impressed me, and I often failed to even mention these interactions, much to the chagrin of my wife and family.
This background explains why my wife was so amazed when I received a phone call one evening at home from Alon Winnie, MD, in 2004. She laughed at me following the call, as she had never seen me so star-struck before.
Fact is, most of my heroes are figures from history. Alon Winnie was different. Born May 16, 1932, in Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, Alon has described his childhood as happy, and he had a passion for both music and medicine. His life was challenged greatly during his internship training at Cook County Hospital, IL, when the strong young man was incapacitated by poliomyelitis and confined to a wheelchair. Yet, Alon had an interest in anesthesia and proved, despite many naysayers, that he could master the specialty, regardless of his physical limitations. His love of human anatomy and keen desire to ease the pain in his patients would lead to one of the most celebrated careers in medical history. Among his many accomplishments, perhaps one of the most significant was his recognition that human nerve plexuses are enclosed in fascial compartments and this anatomical fact could be exploited through the injection of local anesthetics to render regions of the body insensate to pain. This discovery formed the basis of modern regional anesthesia, and Alon is credited with describing many of the block procedures that are still used today. Dr. Winnie’s career is distinguished for many other contributions: His mind was indeed tireless, but his work in pain would prove most influential to my career and impact on so many wounded military servicemembers.
By the time I came to medicine, Alon Winnie was literally a living legend. As my own interests within the house of medicine turned to regional anesthesia, pain, and pain management, the influence and impact that Alon had on these fields of study were inescapable. As a military anesthesiologist, I believed there was untapped potential for many of the blocks Alon had developed to enhance the care of wounded on the modern battlefield. Of course, Alon’s thinking along these lines pre-dates my own by many decades, as he commented to fellow residents after his first few successful brachial plexus blocks, “how useful such single injection techniques would be on the battlefield, especially since the use of a catheter would allow analgesia to last as long as necessary.”1
I certainly admired Dr. Winnie’s accomplishments in the face of significant personal adversity, but did so from a distance. As a young anesthesiologist at various national meetings, I would see Alon always surrounded by a “who’s who” of notable physicians, a crowd that necessitated my distance at the time.
After Sept. 11, 2001, I essentially packed up Alon’s ideas and took them to war with numerous other like-minded followers of the pathway to improved pain management. Standing on Alon’s figurative shoulders and applying his lessons, military providers brought positive change to pain management in the wounded soldier after many decades of benign neglect. Alon’s insight personally gave me the key to achieving a meaningful career in military medicine, and the gift of being able to make a difference in wounded veterans’ lives.
Fortunately, I was smart enough to recognize his tremendous contribution to military medicine and would look for opportunities to celebrate Dr. Winnie’s efforts in my lectures and writing. When teaching residents I would often invoke the Wayne’s World “We are not worthy!” when discussing Alon’s impact on medicine. Which explains my star-struck expression that so bemused my wife when Alon called to discuss my efforts with regional anesthesia in the Iraq conflict. It was surreal to have such a medical giant, from my perspective, calling me at home to praise me for my efforts to bring regional anesthesia to the battlefield.
Alon had a deep respect for those in the military, and the fact that his work was making a difference in many wounded soldiers’ lives was intensely satisfying for him. I know this because I had the profound honor of listing myself among Alon’s many friends. He made a special effort to support the training and education of physicians who cared for soldiers. Despite years of failing health and limited mobility, he still travelled, at significant personal discomfort, to military training events even after he had stopped going to national meetings. From time to time he would call me, and I would keep him abreast of efforts to improve pain management in soldiers.
Alon, my friend and mentor, my celebrity, died on Jan. 18 at the age of 82. While I will miss our talks, it is hard to feel sad about a life so well lived. Alon’s life was a daring adventure which he lived no matter what adversity was separating him from his goals. I felt more alive when I was in his presence, and enjoyed just being around him. I suspect I was not alone in this feeling as evidenced by the crowd that always seemed to gather around him at various professional events. My only regret is I did not come to personally know Alon until late in his life, thus I have the feeling I missed so much. I take solace in the fact that the legacy of his adventure will go on in the many physicians he has trained and the patients they will care for.
Thank you, Alon, for the example of a life well lived as you join the tapestry of medicine’s greatest.
1The Military Advanced Regional Anesthesia and Analgesia Handbook. Buckenmaier CC and Bleckner L. eds. 2009. Bordon Institute. Page IX.
Link to the obituary: http://www.donnellanfuneral.com/memsol.cgi?user_id=1503904