Physician Becomes Patient of the Surgery His Study Seeks to Improve and Walks Away "A Better Doctor"
Thomas K. Fehring, MD
He spent an entire life with knee pain and swelling after activity or having a long day standing at work. It changed the choices he made, like biking instead of running to keep the swelling to a minimum. Then, after a Christmas party with a DJ and a dance floor, he couldn’t get the swelling under control, even after cortisone shots.
He was used to being in an exam room but not from the side of the patient. Dr. Thomas K. Fehring, a renowned hip and knee surgeon, holds patents as the inventor of remarkable prosthetic knee systems. He has been a visiting professor at Mayo Clinic, taught numerous courses to fellow orthopedic surgeons and has written book chapters on knee replacements.
“I’m the guy who takes care of everyone’s problems,” Dr. Fehring says.
As a surgeon, almost every day he operates it involves a total joint surgery. Now the doctor who was used to tackling everyone else’s problems had a problem of his own and it would require a bit of vulnerability on the road to recovery.
DOCTOR BECOMES THE PATIENT
Dr. Fehring needed a knee replacement but that couldn’t happen with the infection in his knee. The irony here? Dr. Fehring was running a study to improve the process of total replacements in joints that are infected.
The current process requires two surgeries – one to remove the joint and put in a temporary prosthesis and another several months later to put in the permanent joint replacement. Until now, this was the necessary process for those with joint infections, but Dr. Fehring saw an opportunity for improvement.
Over the past few years, Dr. Fehring has served as the principal investigator of a study aimed at accessing a method that would eliminate the second surgery in the replacement of an infected joint, making the entire process possible to complete in just one day. Fourteen sites across the country are participating with 300 patients needed to achieve statistical power. Of the nearly 100 procedures that have been performed so far, more than half have been completed at OrthoCarolina.
Now, as a patient, Dr. Fehring would get the same two-step joint replacement he was so familiar with and so involved in studying. With tables turned, he became the patient of his OrthoCarolina Hip & Knee Center colleague, Dr. William L. Griffin.
During this time, Dr. Fehring received support from those who knew exactly what he was going through – his own joint replacement patients. A card he’s held onto reads:
“I hope you have gotten along well with your surgery and are recovering nicely. I am having difficulty in choosing the right words to thank you. I just wanted you to know how well I am getting along since you did both my hip surgeries. I feel so blessed to have had you as my surgeon.”
The well-wishes did their best and today, several months post-surgery, Dr. Fehring reports he has recovered well. Even with great success and a highly skilled surgeon, Dr. Fehring understands how difficult the two-step process for replacing an infected joint can be and he says it makes his study even more exciting.
“I’m such a better doctor than I was now than six months ago,” he says. “Now I get it. I get the pain people go through. It’s been great in the exam room – I can say ‘I know just what you’re talking about.’ When someone tells you-you're going to have two operations over five to six months that affects you psychologically. It’s depressing.
PAVING THE ROAD TO RECOVERY
Another patient who had gone through the same procedure pointed Dr. Fehring towards an organization that provides peer-to-peer support for heart patients. Using his recovery time for good, Dr. Fehring joined his former patient and the two developed their own program for patients of the two-step joint replacement procedure. With three volunteers who serve as patient ambassadors, Healing Joints is a nonprofit supporting patients and their caregivers. Now rolling it out to his own patients, Dr. Fehring’s ultimate vision is to see it implemented across all 14 centers involved in the study.
After becoming a patient of the same surgery he’s working to improve, Dr. Fehring is even more passionate about the future and offering just one procedure for others who find themselves in the same situation.
“It I could have gotten it all done at one time that would have been great,” Dr. Fehring said. “Two hundred more patients to go!”
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-Hip & Knee Replacements: Separating Fact From Fiction – Watch our sub-specialized, fellowship trained hip and knee doctors as they discuss total joint replacements and advancements in hip and knee care.