At a large family reunion in Cancún, Mexico, gastroenterologist L. Henry Pham, MD, was standing in a sheltered area of the Gulf of Mexico when a wave toppled him over, causing hyperextension of his neck resulting in disc herniation and cervical spinal cord contusion at C5, C6 and C7. The injury caused immediate tetraplegia. His wife, Phyllis, saw him floating face down, motionless, and alerted a lifeguard who pulled him out.
“I was conscious throughout and knew something bad had happened to my spinal cord,” says Dr. Pham. “I asked a family friend to protect my head and neck. My son, Andrew, was there, looking down at me on the stretcher while the EMTs carried me a quarter of a mile to the ambulance.”
A local neurosurgeon performed decompression surgery, two discectomies and an internal fusion in one of the small hospital’s four ORs. “He did a great job with perfect alignment. I regard him as a world-class neurosurgeon,” Dr. Pham says.
After two days in the Cancún hospital’s intensive care unit, he was transferred to Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center, 800 miles away, in a fixed-wing plane owned and operated by Memorial Hermann Life Flight®. In Houston, he was admitted to the Mischer Neuroscience Institute at Memorial Hermann-TMC and cared for by the neurocritical care and neurosurgery teams.
“First came the shock,” recalls Dr. Pham. “Before the accident I was a very active person living a fast-paced life. I did CrossFit and cycled 100 miles on the weekend. On the morning of the injury I went to a yoga class with my wife, worked out in the gym, and ran 10 kilometers. Little did I know that a small wave would turn into a tsunami for me. I went from wearing a doctor’s white coat to a hospital gown and a wristband, from taking care of patients to being completely helpless. I think of myself as a positive person but no matter how strong I tried to be on the outside, I was depressed on the inside.”
After thorough evaluation during three days in the Neurological Intensive Care Unit (“ICU”) at Mischer Neuroscience Institute, he was transferred to the hospital’s Neuroscience Acute Care Unit. Upon discharge, he was admitted to TIRR Memorial Hermann, where he spent the next seven weeks in rehabilitation. Transferred in with complete paralysis, he progressed from being pushed in a wheelchair, to locomotor training to regain walking skills through lower-extremity weight bearing, to using a walker, to walking on his own. “I was fortunate to make very good progress,” he says.
He returned to his practice at Central Texas Gastroenterology Consultants last fall and is gradually working his way back to seeing patients in the hospital.
“Family was very important as I went through my ICU stay,” says Dr. Pham, who lives in College Station, Texas, with his wife and three children. “The doctors and nurses provided wonderful care, but my family was the pillar of my ICU stay.”
In June 2017, he took his family to Vietnam on vacation. When he put his hand in the pocket of his swim trunks, he found sand from the beach at Cancún. “I felt like life had somehow brought me full circle to remind me to pay attention to the little things,” he says.
“I’ve taken care of sick patients over the years and gained perspective, but none of it was anything like facing my own mortality. I look at everything around me with gratefulness,” he says. “I try to live more in the moment and not so much in the future.”
Neurocritical care specialist Tiffany Chang, MD, invited Dr. Pham to speak at the Mischer Neuroscience Institute’s Sixth Annual Neuro ICU Symposium last April at the Westin Oaks Houston in the Galleria. He gave an eloquent and moving talk about his experience.
“He reminded us about how impactful every encounter with a physician or nurse is regardless of how big or small,” says Dr. Chang, an assistant professor with dual appointments in the department of Neurology and Vivian L. Smith Department of Neurosurgery at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth. “As physicians we should keep in mind that every moment with the patient counts. Dr. Pham shared a story of hope. At the time of the injury, his physicians were concerned that he would never walk again. He received the highest quality of care available from three medical teams working together – neurosurgery in Mexico, neurocritical care and neurosurgery in Houston, and the rehabilitation team at TIRR Memorial Hermann. His willingness to speak at the symposium is testimony to his kindness and generosity. It must have been hard for him, but as a physician he is always working to improve the lives of his patients, whether through direct care or by sharing his ICU experience with other physicians to help us become even more patient-centered.”
These days, Dr. Pham is spending more time with family and friends. “The greatest demonstration of compassion is when we see the world through another’s eyes and treat that person with respect and dignity,” he said at the Neuro ICU Symposium. “Realize that everything can be taken away from you in the blink of an eye. Make every minute count because life can end unexpectedly.”
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