Dr. Lee Ballance
It was the day before the Fourth of July in 2005, and I was riding my bike by myself near the Berkeley-Albany border. The bike path was reasonably busy until I got to an area where there was a bridge. A couple of young guys were hanging out on the bridge, and they found a 30- or 40-second window of opportunity when no one was there to observe them. As I passed, one of them jumped off the bridge and slammed me to the pavement and then struck me a couple of times. I got up and tried to get back on my bike, but I couldn't stand. I came to the conclusion that my hip was probably broken.
Physicians spend a lot of time thinking about how and where to get care: Do we want to be taken care of in a facility where we’re well-known, or do we want to be anonymous? For me, the fewer people who knew I was a doctor, the better. If they know you, you become kind of a celebrity and get special treatment, which isn’t always better. No one wants to wake Tom Cruise at 2 a.m., so they don’t check on you. You don’t get a rectal exam when you should. I also didn’t want to have to choose which colleague would treat me. Under the best of circumstances, things don’t always come out the way you want them to, and if I had a bad result, I didn’t want one of my colleagues to be implicated. Better not to be treated by someone I have to see every day for the rest of my career.
I knew that in general, I was lucky to have this injury now and not 40 years ago. The ability to repair and replace major joints today is just incredibly better. I would jokingly tell people in my practice that if an older person fell and broke a hip 40 years ago, you called the doctor and the priest, because there was a significant mortality rate. I wasn’t particularly worried that my injury was something that medical science couldn’t handle, but I was anxious because I was going to have major surgery, and it was going to screw up my life.
I had a type of hip fracture that makes it difficult to achieve a successful repair. It jeopardizes the circulation to the head of the femur, and I had some damage that set me up for future problems. There was a question at the get-go as to whether to attempt to fix it or go ahead and replace the hip. That was the surgeon’s dilemma. Deferring hip replacement is rarely a bad idea, because presumably the surgery gets better as time passes. It’s like buying a new car—as soon as you drive it off the lot, it’s a used car. We elected to attempt a repair, partially because of my doctor’s background as a trauma surgeon.
I was in a wheelchair for three months after the surgery and then on and off crutches for another six. I missed six months of work. I have a high tolerance for reading and listening to music and things like that, but it was nice to get back to work. I missed taking care of patients.
I’m not 100 percent recovered. A few years ago, I had a second surgery, and I have an artificial hip now. I expect a lot from my body, and I was surprised by how much time and effort it took to get back to a high level of function after my hip replacement. But I’m happy to report that I rode 100 miles three weeks ago. There is still life after trouble.
More Doctors' Survival Stories:
Beating Breast Cancer with Help from Beyoncé
A Superhero Surgeon Brought to His Knees
After Dodging a Death Sentence, Looking for a Cure
From Pain, a New Purpose
For a Workaholic, the Misery of Bed Rest
Sometimes, It’s Not the Doctor Who Heals
Working Through Lung Cancer
Originally published in the January issue of San Francisco