Journey to recovery: Surgeon gains new perspectives from adversity

Dr. Kennan Vance has returned to his orthopedic surgery and sports medicine practice at Community Hospital in Grand Junction following a lengthy recovery from injuries he sustained in an accident on the Colorado National Monument. (Business Times photo by Phil Castle)
Dr. Kennan Vance has returned to his orthopedic surgery and sports medicine practice at Community Hospital in Grand Junction following a lengthy recovery from injuries he sustained in an accident on the Colorado National Monument. (Business Times photo by Phil Castle)

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Kennan Vance understands why his patients sometimes grow discouraged when their progress slows. Vance feels their pain because he’s endured pain of his own following a horrific bicycle accident, a succession of surgeries and more than a year of rehabilitation.

While Vance reassures his patients they’ll eventually feel better, he admits he struggles to follow his own advice. “I need to drink the same Kool-Aid,” he jokes.

An accident along what’s literally a long and winding road over the Colorado National Monument sent Vance on a journey down a figuratively long and winding road toward recovery. But he’s almost there.

He’s returned to his practice as an orthopedic surgeon and slowly ramped up his workload over the past six months. He continues to work on a part-time basis as interim chief medical officer at Community Hospital in Grand Junction, although a permanent CMO will soon succeed him. He’s even back on his bike.

In the process, Vance says he’s gained a deeper appreciation for doctors and nurses and the care they provide. “There are people in this profession who do it out of love, and that’s what’s cool about it.”

Vance also says he also possesses more compassion for patients fighting to come back from their own adversities. “It helps me understand my role a little more.”

Vance was injured in April 2017 while riding his bicycle on Rim Rock Drive over the Colorado National Monument east of Grand Junction.

While he doesn’t remember exactly what happened, Vance says he was told he’d been riding downhill near Cold Shivers Point and had gone around a curve when he was struck by a truck coming from the opposition direction. The truck had swerved to pass a vehicle parked along the side of the road. Vance ended up under the rear tire of the truck.

Vance says he sustained an open fracture of his femur as well as fractures in his pelvis, ribs and vertebrae. He remained in a coma for eight days — in part medically induced because of a succession of four surgeries, in part because of a possible complication related to his bone fractures. Vance says a neurologist treating him at the time later told him he was worried at one point  Vance might not regain consciousness.

Vance says the surgeries left him with rods, plates and screws installed in his body, and he’s faced a lengthy rehabilitation to regain movement and fitness. “Learning to walk again is not just an expression.”

Vance continues to undergo physical therapy, although he says he now does it on his own with the guidance of a therapist.

Vance resumed work in his practice in January and has gradually increased his workload with Western Orthopedics & Sports Medicine. That includes his work with athletes and trainers at Colorado Mesa University and with the Grand Junction Rockies baseball team.

While it can be physically demanding to spend so much time on his feet, he says he’s pleased with the progress he’s made. “Honestly, I’ve done very well.”

He was especially worried about the effects of his injuries on his skills as a surgeon and required a proctor at first to monitor his work and step in if necessary.  Vance says he received a vote of confidence from one proctor who told him he couldn’t detect any difference between his performance before and after the crash.

During his recovery, Vance also has worked on a part-time basis as interim CMO at Community Hospital. Vance says serves as a liaison between the medical staff and administrators at the hospital and also reviews cases involving patients who’ve raised issues about their care. “I was grateful for the opportunity. It was a blessing to do something meaningful.”

Vance will continue to work for Community Hospital in his role as an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist after Western Orthopedics & Sports Medicine joins the hospital July 1. The hospital purchased the physical assets of the practice. Seven physicians and a total of about 50 employees of the practice will join the hospital staff.

Vance says the change was precipitated in part by his accident and resulting shortfall in revenue while he recovered. Working for the hospital will insulate them from that situation. But the hospital also will offer support services and economies of scale that will relieve the practice of administrative functions and reduce overhead, he adds.

Meanwhile, Vance says he brings several fresh perspectives to his work as a result of his experiences.

He says he was sustained by his faith and his belief he would recover.

He says he was inspired by the professionalism and care of the doctors, nurses and other health care providers who’ve treated him.”They came to work to make a difference, and they did.”

Vance says he also has more compassion for his patients fighting to recover from injuries and illnesses and better understands why they might become discouraged if their progress slows.

But Vance also wonders why other patients aren’t willing to fight as hard to recover even when their conditions might be less severe.

If nothing else, Vance says he offers an example of what’s possible. “I have fought back from tremendous adversity, and I know it can be done.”