Monday, August 22, 2011

Accident Doesn't Paralyze Witman's Fight

By Lisa E. Crowley
BROCKTON—One wave.
One rogue ocean wave in Rhode Island last August 31 forever changed the life of Dr. Gary Witman, an emergency room doctor at Brockton’s Good Samaritan Medical Center, who in one surge of Mother Nature’s power has gone from a leading ER doctor to struggling quadriplegic—not only fighting for his life and to walk again, but also fighting for the medical care and denials of that care from health insurance companies.
“I only go to the beach once a year—and that day was it,” Witman said after a recent session at Braintree Rehabilitation Hospital, where he is undergoing extensive physical and occupational therapies.
Sometimes it is difficult for him to speak—although speaking is progress—and he practically lives in an electrified wheelchair that is now the only means for Witman to get around.
He uses a "puffer," or strawlike device to operate the wheelchair, and his wife of 36years, Diane, better known as Dee Dee, is constantly on the move helping him with all of the once-taken-for-granted needs of everyday life from helping Witman eat, drink, bathe, change clothes, get in and out of bed and run the household.
"This isn't love--it's more than love," Dee Dee said, as she wiped a drip from Gary's mouth as juice spilled from his lips and down his face.
"This is like. I love him, but I like him, too. This is companionship, friendship--this is committment," she said.
Unlike some of the thousands in the U.S. who suffer from quadriplegia—commonly called tetraplegia-- Witman, 61, a determined, sharp-witted, gregarious, and humorous father of three adult children, said while there are things he can no longer do, he will not be anchored by this enormous and unwanted change in his life.
He has no desire to stay home and wither away, and doesn’t care if people are uncomfortable seeing him wheel around hotels for his daughter’s wedding in California, or around the streets of his neighborhood in Rhode Island, or around the grounds of the hospital he expects to return.
“There was never going be retirement,” Witman said. “People tell me I should just retire, stay home, take care of myself. That’s what I’m doing. Taking care of myself. With or without this, I never intended to retire,” he said.
At the moment of the accident nearly a year ago, immediately realizing he was paralyzed and unable to move, roll over or yell for help during the time he was face-down in 3 feet of water only 50 feet from shore, Witman said he contemplated several things while waiting to die:
He was glad he took out a substantial life insurance policy for his family and that the universe is not in the control of humans.
“What I recall most was the sound of the waves and the fact that I was bobbing on the ocean like a rubber duck in the bathtub,” Witman said. “I felt absolutely helpless and awed by the power of Mother Nature,” he said.
Since the wave caused injuries to his spinal cord in several places, Witman, has made an amazing amount of progress, including the ability to speak eight months after the accident, he and Dee Dee have had a rude awakening to what it is like on the other side of medicine—including frustrating battles with insurance companies over services and rehab programs.
“I’m not only a doctor now. I’m a patient,” Witman said. “I’m on the other side,” he said.
While there is progress, Witman has a long way to go to reach some of the goals he has set for himself: possibly walking again and returning as a regular member of the Good Samaritan Medical Center staff.
He has been in touch with new hospital President Jeffrey Liebman to create some type of position that would allow Witman to use his keen mind, if not body, to help at the hospital where he has been a leader since 1997 when he joined the staff.
“We’re going to try to custom-shape something,” Witman said.
His friend and colleague at Good Samaritan’s emergency room Dr. Christopher Johnson said Witman’s accident was a shock to all in the close-knit Good Samaritan community.
When Witman gave a presentation to the hospital’s paramedic service in May, Witman’s wheelchair was surrounded by paramedics, doctors, nurses and other staff wishing him well and giving him kisses and hugs. (Photo at top with Dr. David Mudd, left)
“Through all of this, at some point he’s going to prevail,” Johnson said. (Pictured above)
Johnson said it is inevitable that Witman will, in some shape or form, return to the hospital as a doctor.
“He loves medicine and he has an unbridled and unmatched energy,” Johnson said. “He has dedicated his life to medicine. He’s one of those doctors you can call at 3 a.m. for help and he doesn’t mind,” he said.
Johnson said Witman is sorely missed at the hospital.
“He’s such an intellectual, so dedicated and he has so much knowledge,” Johnson said. “He’s really missed by the staff and patients,” he said.

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