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Doctor wheels through rounds

| April 28, 2004 12:00 AM

By Paul Boring, Western News Reporter

An ice climbing accident has left one doctor at St. John¹s Lutheran Hospital with a newfound empathy for his patients.

Part-time doctor Mark Heppe fractured both feet in February while ice climbing with a friend at Rainbow Falls near Plains.

Heppe¹s friend from Missoula led the first pitch and the doctor followed by leading the second. While ascending, Heppe slipped and fell onto a ledge below. When he struck the solid outcropping with his heavy boots and crampons, he could feel bones snap. He then continued to fall until the rope was taut and he was suspended in the air.

³By that point I was horizontal to my partner, hanging on the rope,² Heppe said. ³He dragged me over to the belay and lowered me down. The pain was excruciating. I was close to blacking out.²

Once on the ground, Heppe¹s ordeal was far from over. He found himself at the top of a 550 foot scree slope. Sliding his body down the rugged terrain, Heppe carefully elevated his legs to avoid jarring his shattered ankles.

³I think it took us two or three hours to get down a slope that earlier we had run up in 10 minutes,² he said.

Still a fair distance from Heppe¹s vehicle, his friend set off to retrieve the transportation. Along the way he stopped at a residence and explained the situation to the woman at the house.

³The woman came and met me as I was crawling along the road,² Heppe said. ³We used her car and then transferred into mine.²

Heppe arrived a short time later at the emergency room in Plains, making an unfamiliar entrance at his other place of employment.

³The doctors and staff didn¹t know who it was coming in on a stretcher,² he said. ³They all came rushing out and saw it was me. I thought they were going to turn me away. I wasn¹t supposed to be a patient there.²

Dr. Joe Nicoletto, a colleague of Heppe at St. John¹s, was on duty at the Plains ER. A familiar face in the emergency room helped quell Heppe¹s frustration. X-rays revealed that the doctor had suffered two rare fractures in the bones below the ankle.

³When we looked at the x-ray, you had to look for the ŒL¹ and ŒR¹ to know which foot it was,² he said. ³The fractures were almost identical.²

Fortuitously, a widely respected foot and ankle surgeon had recently moved from Seattle to Ronan.

³In Missoula they said I wouldn¹t be able to find anybody better than him,² Heppe said. ³It worked out perfectly.²

Six hours in surgery found Heppe with repaired ankles, but a heavy heart. The tri-athlete and outdoor enthusiast dreaded the coming months of being sentenced to life in a wheelchair.

³I couldn¹t just lay around and watch them heal,² he said. ³So much goes through your mind when you¹re confined like that. I started thinking that maybe I¹d lose my edge being away from work for so long. I had to do something. I thought that maybe I could work out of a chair.²

Four weeks after the accident, Heppe was back at work, albeit in a different capacity and with a completely new perspective.

³It¹s amazing how well this has worked,² he said. ³The hospital and the patients have been great. I really appreciate the hospital¹s willingness to work with me.²

The wheelchair-bound doctor slightly modified his duties at St. John¹s, working part-time in Prompt Care and filling in at the emergency room when needed.

³I haven¹t had any problems at all,² he said. ³There¹s always another doctor next to me if I need help.²

While helping patients from a wheelchair, Heppe was floored by the difference a couple feet could make. Empathy bloomed between the doctor and patients, both parties nursing their respective ailments or maladies.

³This will definitely change my practice of medicine for sure,² he said.

Examining patients from a chair presented a logistical challenge for Heppe. An unconventional method he quickly developed found the patient sitting in the doctor¹s usual seat, a swiveling stool. By spinning the patient around, Heppe could conduct the examination expediently.

³It works great,² he said. ³By the end the patient might have been a little dizzy, but we got a great exam done.²

Heppe is now able to stand up without aid. Physical therapy performed in a swimming pool has incrementally helped him develop the strength to support his own weight.

Saying goodbye to the wheelchair will not be a tearful parting, Heppe said. Although the injury was inconvenient for the active doctor, the perspective gained has been invaluable and eye opening.

³This has been a great wake up call,² he said.