|Dr. Gary Witman wants to practice medicine|
|By Nancy Kirsch|
|Friday, 06 January 2012 02:20|
|Despite paralyis, Witman lives a full and vibrant life|
PROVIDENCE – Bad timing and an errant ocean wave irrevocably changed the lives of Dr. Gary and DeeDee Witman, of Providence. On Aug. 31, 2010, an unplanned visit to an out-of-town friend took them to Narragansett’s Canochet Beach, where Gary was “whacked in the back of his neck” by a wave, DeeDee said in a recent interview. “I saw him floating face down, and I knew something was wrong.”
Gary, now 62, recalls being fully conscious, certain that he was going to die – he couldn’t roll over, and he couldn’t breathe anything in but ocean water.
Dragged to shore by DeeDee and a helpful stranger, Gary said, “I’m paralyzed. Get me to Brigham & Women’s [Hospital in Boston]. I don’t want to die; I love you.” DeeDee, unflappable and organized in emergencies, thought the claim of paralysis was a joke; only later would she come to realize its permanence.
Their connections in the medical community – Gary is an emergency room physician who has worked at Good Samaritan Hospital in Brockton, Mass. and elsewhere – “fast-tracked” Gary into Rhode Island Hospital after initial treatment at South County Hospital. At Rhode Island Hospital, during the “worst 24 hours of her life,” DeeDee was told that Gary was unlikely to survive. Twenty-one days at Brigham & Women’s intensive care unit were followed by several months of rehabilitation at Craig Hospital in the Denver, Colo. suburb of Englewood.
One futile day
The only time Gary wanted to die, he recalled, was when a doctor at Brigham & Women’s told him that his desire to live would be catastrophic to his family. (The couple has three grown children, one son-in-law and a baby granddaughter.) At that point, Gary was on a ventilator and had experienced trauma high up on his cervical spinal cord – the higher on the spinal cord an injury occurs, the more severe the damage.
But Gary has embraced the new life he and his family have created for him. Today, some 16 months after the “freak” accident, he breathes independently. “It took me a full year to be able to move my arms,” said Gary. And skiing – which DeeDee called “one of the most prominent joys of our family life” – will likely remain a treasured family experience. Next month, Gary will participate in an adaptive ski program in Maine: he will sit in a sled that trained skiers will guide down the mountain.
DeeDee spent weeks researching the best choice of rehab hospital and battling their insurance company’s frequent denials of coverage. For instance, while agreeing to fund Gary’s rehabilitation at Craig Hospital, it refused to pay for his transportation there.
Eventually their appeals succeeded, and they were off to Colorado. “I sat in this tiny medical plane on a jump seat,” said DeeDee. “All I could take was a backpack, and the lulav and etrog Rabbi Yehoshua Laufer made us promise to take with us.” (Their journey was shortly before Sukkot.)
In contrast to Boston – where people they knew and loved were constantly in his intensive care room – they were “strangers in a strange land” at Craig – a hospital that DeeDee said had very few Jews. Friends flew to Colorado every weekend to see Gary.
They never tell you outright, “He’ll never move anything below his neck again,” said DeeDee. “Instead, their viewpoint is, ‘We’ll teach you how to live as fully as possible.’ We were there for three months; when I saw kids who had brain injuries walking around but gazing into space with empty stares, I actually felt lucky that Gary could still talk and think and laugh,” DeeDee said.
Self possessed and confident, DeeDee said she has always appreciated the gift of life, despite experiencing severe losses along the way. Her father dropped dead in front of her when she was only 29, and they lost dear relatives and friends – the Weingroffs and Jacobers – in a private plane crash some years ago.
During the first year, Gary’s blood pressure and temperature fluctuated wildly – symptoms that often accompany spinal cord injuries. Deep depression and even suicide are major risks for quadriplegics, said Gary, as are urinary tract infections, pneumonia, skin infections and ulcers and autonomic dysreflexia. The latter condition, in which the blood pressure’s systolic number rises suddenly to above 200 can lead to stroke and sudden death; Gary has experienced three such episodes to date.
Support from their community
Friends offered us a tremendous outpouring of support, said DeeDee. Rabbi Wayne Franklin (of Temple Emanu-El) and Rabbi Laufer (of Chabad of Rhode Island) were by our side nonstop through our days in Boston, said DeeDee.
To this day, Rabbi Laufer comes every day but Shabbat to put on tefillin with Gary. He frequently interferes with Gary’s being able to watch the Patriots play, so now Gary insists that the rabbi watch the game for a few minutes! Their relationship is much deeper now than before the accident, he said.
“Wayne has been compassionate and loving to us both,” said DeeDee.
For his part, Gary believes many people feel uncomfortable around quadriplegics. Eager to be out in his motorized wheelchair, as he was on Los Angeles sidewalks some months ago, he bemoans the dearth of accessible sidewalks in Providence. “I have to ride in the street; the sidewalks are in deplorable condition,” he said. He gets into his wheelchair and motors off, at 16 miles per charge, to Wayland Square or downtown.
With no spinal cord specialists in Rhode Island, Gary and DeeDee trek to Boston typically three or four times a week. Gary receives therapy through the nationally recognized Spinal Cord Injury program at Boston Medical Center. His primary care physician makes house calls to see him, as he can’t get into the physician’s office, and a personal attendant lives in.
A changed man
After their return from Colorado, DeeDee realized that Gary had lain in bed for nearly three months with no computer or books to stimulate his brain. “That’s when it hit me,” she said: They needed to find a way to feed his brain. “I married Gary for his brain, and his brain is intact. As long as he has that, we can laugh together.”
Acknowledging that she wasn’t initially prepared for the “new us” – where they are together all the time, in contrast to a husband who worked long hours in a hospital – DeeDee said, “He’s a great guy; now it’s my turn to step up to bat.”
Technology and work
Extremely pragmatic, Gary thinks about how he can return to medicine, his chosen career field, and work as a physician. Unfortunately, technology could be vastly improved, they said. Although voice-activated Dragon software allows him to use a computer, other challenges remain. And, while Bluetooth technology allows him to initiate a phone call, no technology – whether using an Android, an Apple or a BlackBerry phone – allows him to terminate a call if no one answers. He gets stuck in “voice mail hell.”
Busier than many able-bodied individuals, he has given “grand rounds” for medical students and residents at Cambridge Hospital, has participated in litigation as an expert witness, and is now working to launch three different companies. One focuses on electronic medical records for emergency rooms, while another develops programmable plastics. As a consultant to the third (Rescue Reel Company, which has created a device that enables a trapped person to escape a building from levels above a first responder’s reach), he has met with members of Rhode Island’s congressional delegation. He also plans to meet with the principals of the New York City real estate company that leased the Twin Towers shortly before 9/11.
Current medical advances make this an exciting time in life sciences, said Gary, noting cutting-edge developments of brain-implanted electrodes that stimulate neurological movements. “It’s premature for me to use them, but I’m happy to be a guinea pig. I want to see where I stabilize first.” Stem cell research offers more promising developments, and he hopes their use will be depoliticized. It is, he said, a fast-evolving field.
Although he listens to music, talks with friends, visits family in California and reads, some things remain beyond his reach. Being paralyzed is tough, he said, as he drily recounted a recent experience. One early morning at 3 a.m., he heard something or someone moving around in the house and yelled for DeeDee to come down. She came down but found nothing amiss. Later, when DeeDee again responded to his calls, she discovered the noisemaker. “A squirrel was sitting on top of my head, and I couldn’t move,” said Gary.
On the other hand, being able to hold their new granddaughter – in a sling DeeDee had specifically made for this reason – has brought Gary deep joy.
“My approach to life hasn’t changed,” said Gary. “One of my goals is to see if I can return to medicine in a meaningful way and earn a paycheck like anyone else. The work I am doing is quite satisfying – I’m doing good for society and myself.”