by Anthony Braza and Sara L. Wilkins
In 2004, Kenneth Lee, MD '93, GME '97, FEL '99, MCW associate professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation, was stationed in Iraq treating his battle buddies who were wounded in the field, when he himself was badly injured by a suicide car bomb. The incident caused traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, and nerve and joint damage that led to years of therapy, surgery and deep, dark depression. The darkness continued until his fellow veterans gave him a renewed sense of purpose.
"We are trained to have a battle buddy. That battle buddy mentality comes out when I am treating a fellow veteran. They are my patients, but they are my comrades as well."
Throughout his rehabilitation – the surgeries, the physical therapy (PT) and occupational therapy (OT), the sessions with the psychiatrist – as well as throughout his own internal battles, Dr. Lee paid attention to what he liked, what he didn't like, and how he felt along the way. These notes paved the way for changes he made to how he interacted with and treated his veteran patients.
As an example, he says he remembers how boring PT and OT were, and how they seemed to drag. So he launched an adaptive sports and recreation league to make therapy more engaging and interesting for his patients. This includes activities such as sled hockey, wheelchair lacrosse and goal ball.
"So many of these paralyzed veterans have it worse than I ever had it, and seeing their resilience and perseverance as they participate in these sporting events helped bring me through my ailments. We help each other. Now, I am enjoying life with my family members and my spinal cord injury veterans, all of whom have saved my life and career."
Dr. Lee's spinal cord injury patients face many of the problems he faced and experience many of the same feelings, and he shares that he helps them as much as he can along the way because he can relate.
"Being a veteran, and having been a patient at the VA, I understand so much about what they are going through. Like when they don’t want to deal with the pain, or are feeling lonely and scared and want to harm themselves. Or when they start wrapping the emotional aspects of their injuries into the physical parts and worry too much about what people think about how their injuries make them look. I can relate on so many levels. The first time I went to the YMCA after my injuries, parents took their children out of the pool because they thought I had a disease.
"We always tell our patients there are support services available to them. Because I have used almost all of them, now I can look my patients in the eyes and tell them with complete certainty those services work. They help. And they believe me because I can talk to them in their own language. And from my experiences, I also try to convey how strong and important family support can be. I want them to understand it gets much easier if they bring others into it."
Dr. Lee also tries to impart lessons he learned onto the medical students and residents.
"It is important for them to know that patients have lives away from what they are being treated for, and that there is life after care. I like bringing students and residents to the adaptive sports events to see the fruits of their work – to see what patients are getting better for."