Ontario doctor learning new lessons as a patient
Published Sunday, May 9, 2010 10:42PM EDT
Dr. Jeff Sutherland has spent his whole medical career in Georgetown, Ont., running a family practice, working in the emergency room at the local hospital where he was also an administrator.
But these days, the doctor who has cared for so many patients in the community is now a patient himself, as he confronts Lou Gehrig's disease, a devastating condition known as ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
It's a motor neuron disease that will eventually take the 43-year-old's life, as he loses the ability to move, to eat, and eventually to breathe.
In the three years since his diagnosis, Sutherland has watched his muscles fail. He needs a wheelchair to get around and a keyboard and voice synthesizer to speak.
Just as devastating to Sutherland is that he's losing his ability to work. He first gave up working in the hospital emergency department, then the obstetrics department. Last September, he retired from his family practice.
"It angered me that I was forced by ALS to give up more and more of my normal life. (But ) I knew my abilities would soon prevent me from being the doctor my patients needed me to be," he tells CTV News.
"I liked being a family doctor because of the relationships I established with my patients. I had many multi-generational families in my practice, so that I would be present in the good times, like delivering a baby, and the sad times during the death of a loved one. Being around when needed was very important to me as a doctor," he says.
But during the summer of 2007, Sutherland realized he needed to see a doctor himself when he noticed increased muscle twitching and weakness in his left arm.
"As I was going through the tests, I was praying something else would be found. Something that was treatable," he remembers.
When the diagnosis came, his directive to his family and friends was to keep his life as normal as possible. It was a promise his wife Darlene agreed to keep.
"When you're thrown an obstacle or hurdle in your life, you don't succumb to it. You rise and you don't let a disease take everything you have worked hard for," she says.
And so, Jeff continues working as associate chief of staff at the Georgetown Community Hospital, with the hospital's blessing.
"Jeff with ALS is exactly Jeff without ALS. And that's the gift," says the hospital's chief operating officer, Cindy McDonell.
Dr. Sutherland is also giving a face to a disease that few in his community knew about. Because of him, attendance at Georgetown's annual Walk for ALS was huge. Local organizers raised a record of $250,000 in 2009, leading them to be awarded the year's Exceptional Fundraising Award from the ALS Society of Canada.
For Dr. Sutherland, becoming a patient has taught him new lessons as a doctor.
"I have learned many things as a patient – some good things and some bad things. Firstly, we are very lucky in Canada to have such a great medical system. These types of illnesses are costly -- the costs of tests, clinic visits and home support.
"Secondly, physician bedside manner is very important. I have always felt it can lift a patient to keep them going, or deflate a patient and deflate the will to fight.
"As a doctor I have learned it is important to give patients appropriate time to express their views and remember that the patient is more than the illness.
He says the most important thing he's learned as a patient is that one is only as sick as their mindset.
"What I mean by that is although most people look at me as though I am very ill, personally I don't feel that way. I feel normal except I don't have muscle strength. Mentally, overall I have been able to remain the same. I have not allowed ALS to take everything away," he says.
His former colleague at his family practice clinic, Dr. Anthony Farragos, says he too has learned from Sutherland's illness.
"This is a man who at the prime of his life, all of sudden, all of that was taken away from him. If I've learned anything from Jeff living with ALS, it's to seize the day," Farrago says.
"If I have learned anything, I think it's to place myself in the shoes of my patient and ask myself, as a human, what information would I like to know so I can move forward and feel somewhat empowered," he says.
Sutherland says he agreed to talk about his illness to CTV News to help raise awareness about ALS.
"Because with awareness comes research and with research funding comes treatments," he says. "There are very few illnesses that modern medicine has failed to make appreciable advances, and we need, as a society, to make advances in the treatment of this devastating illness."
He says if his story brings a face to this devastating illness, he would encourage people to seek out an ALS Walk in their area through the ALS Society of Canada, or join him Saturday, June 5, for the community walk in Georgetown.
With a report from CTV medical specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip