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Cover Stories | March 2018

Disabled, Handicapped? Not Me. I’m Just a Great Adapter

How I overcame a potentially career-ending illness and am going strong.

I had just started in solo private practice in Port St. Lucie, on the east coast of Florida. I had been working for 6 months, and I was busy and loving my life. Then I developed severe back pain. It was unconventional because it did not respond to any treatment. An MRI and CT scan revealed that a tumor the size of a cantaloupe was pressing on my spine, causing all the pain.


Flash forward 6 weeks: neurosurgery at the University of Florida. I underwent an 8-hour surgery that entailed debulking the tumor and the untethering of my spinal cord. I spent 2 weeks in the hospital and went home with some big issues to face and some hard tasks ahead. I had to learn to walk again with bilateral foot drop. I also had a neurogenic bladder. Nothing is ever easy in rehabilitation.

As all of this was happening, a 20-year-old established practice in Venice, on the west coast of Florida, offered me a position. I decided to join this practice, and I was excited about moving back to the west coast of Florida. I had grown up in Clearwater, just 1.5 hours away, and all of my family was there.

But at the same time, I knew that what was ahead for me was going to be challenging. How was I to operate? I needed both feet to do surgery, but I was unable to use my left foot at all. I had to adapt. The solution I arrived at was that the surgical scrub nurse would keep my microscope focused, and I would use my right foot for the phaco pedal. This was extremely scary. I thought I might have to give up doing what I loved most and had worked so hard to learn, ophthalmic surgery.


That was in 1989. Twenty-nine years later, I am still doing surgery. I have had some other setbacks with my feet and ankles. Almost 18 years ago, I slipped on a wet floor and sustained a compound tibia-fibula fracture, which required major surgery and more rehab. But it kept me out of the OR for only 3 weeks. I had no real problems until this past year, when some hardware had to be removed and I could not bear weight for 3 weeks. I survived; I just made it part of my vacation. My feet are numb, and some days are better than others, but life is like that.

I have incredible office and OR staffs that make it so easy for me (Figure 1). They know just what to say and do to make my days run smoothly. I am blessed to have a supportive family and friends that never make me feel handicapped, and I never let myself feel that way either.

Figure 1. Dr. Stephenson and her staff working together in the operating room.

It is pure will that keeps me going and doing the job that I love. It’s all about adapting to your surroundings and making the best of a situation. I was always taught that I could do anything if I put my mind to it. I have to say, I have put my mind to it and have never looked back. I’m not handicapped, I’m just a born adapter!

P. Dee G. Stephenson, MD, FACS
  • Founder, Stephenson Eye Associates, Venice Florida
  • Member, CRST Editorial Board
  • eyedrdee@aol.com
  • Financial disclosure: None
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