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Dome - The Surgeon Speaks

Dome February 2013

The Surgeon Speaks

Date: February 1, 2013

The Surgeon Speaks

Every day, the dull pain in his right leg reminds Albert Chi why he chose a career in trauma medicine. More than 20 years ago, Chi, then a biomedical engineering student, was riding his motorcycle in Arizona when a driver making a left turn slammed into him. As he lay in a pool of blood, cars swerving by, Chi recalls seeing bone protrude from his leg, which was hanging by a thread.

Chi thought he’d die from his injuries or at the very least need to have his leg amputated. On arriving at the hospital, says Chi, “I hung onto every word—vascular graft, latissimus free flap, amputation—as doctors discussed my case for what seemed like an eternity.” When they finally decided to reconstruct his leg, a process that required nine operations, the resulting long hospital stay and rapport he developed with the medical staff inspired Chi to become a physician.

“There’s an unnerving truth,” says Chi, “that one does not appreciate all of life’s gifts until they are gone. I personally know the anguish of patient fears, the difficulties of recovery and the relief of a simple explanation.”

After earning a master’s degree in biomedical engineering—getting to class using a wheelchair, crutches or cane—he went on to attend medical school at the University of Arizona. But every time he looked at his leg, he thought he’d never be able to resume his athletic pursuits. Stirred by a friend who told Chi that his impaired leg shouldn’t deter him, Chi started to hike, bike and eventually run marathons. He even climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro.

On a recent follow-up visit with Chi, Johnny Matheny admits that rehab with his new arm has proven grueling, but he says he’s getting better at it. After helping Matheny attach the artificial limb, a young technician sets up the technological interface, which Matheny will eventually take home. Sensors implanted in Matheny’s skin pick up brain signals to control the arm. “It’s like going through life with a video game,” he jokes.

Matheny focuses on a word; the metal thumb and forefinger start to curl. “Look,” he boasts, “I can pinch these two fingers together just by thinking about it.” Chi nods his approval, flashing a smile. The two men can’t seem to hide their delight. They even finish each other’s sentences. Chuckling, Matheny offers, “Yeah, me and the prosthetic are at one with each other.”

Suddenly, he confides, “Dr. Chi’s been with me every step of the way.”

—Judy F. Minkove