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The lessons of vulnerability: Hospital executive becomes hospital patient

The lessons of vulnerability: Hospital executive becomes hospital patient

Published on April 12, 2018

Nothing seemed out of the ordinary as David Russell, then a vice president with Adventist Health Portland, worked in the yard on a Sunday in early 2015. The sky was blue, the air warm for January, and David felt good—nothing to indicate his life was hanging in the balance.

His first clue came in the evening, as he scanned emails. A headache formed in his forehead, then the vision in his right eye narrowed, as if a curtain was lowering.

David didn’t have a history of migraines, but he suspected he might be having one. His wife, Debbie, a nurse, gave him pain medication, and he went to bed.

The night wore on, and the pain intensified. Ice, medicine—nothing helped. Debbie drove him to the emergency room at Adventist Health Portland.

“I’m not the type of person who is worried about my privacy,” David explains. “I was glad to go where I knew people, where I knew I would be taken care of.”

The hospital executive became a hospital patient.

Hunting for a diagnosis

The day passed in a flurry of tests. One by one, possible causes of David’s relentless pain were ruled out. CT imaging was inconclusive. An ophthalmologist checked his eyes. The emergency doctor prescribed pain management while they looked for answers.

Ultimately, David had an MRI done so his care providers could get a better look, and he went home to await the results.

Just as he crawled into bed, David got a phone call that would reshape his life for weeks to come. A large tumor had formed on his pituitary gland. It had grown large enough to press on David’s optic nerve, causing his shaded vision as well as his relentless pain.

Worse yet: The tumor was dying and threatening to rupture into David’s brain.

‘Do what you’ve got to do’

David’s team at Adventist Health Portland referred him immediately for neurosurgery at nearby Oregon Health and Science University. His mind foggy from medication, David listened as the specialist described how a team of surgeons planned to remove the tumor through David’s nose—a delicate but less-invasive procedure.

“Do what you’ve got to do,” David told them.

Four hours later, David emerged from surgery. In addition to the pituitary tumor, the surgical team discovered and removed polyps from inside David’s nose. He was placed in the neuro-ICU for several days of specialty care.

And so began the long wait for pathology to find out if the tumor or polyps were cancerous. In the meantime, teams of doctors, residents and medical students came by to check on David. He was entirely in their hands.

“You really become aware of the vulnerability of being a patient—the loss of control and privacy and the dependency you have as a patient,” David says.

Life and learning

Later that week, the pathology report came back. David’s tumor and polyps were benign—as his surgeon suspected, but it was a relief to know David was cancer-free. “I was so happy to be alive,” David recalls.

His lessons as a patient were just beginning. Soon David was making follow-up appointments and sorting through endless and sometimes confusing medical bills.

But he was also realizing how much, as a patient, he valued the compassionate whole-person care he received at Adventist Health.

“My experience as a patient strengthened my belief that every physician, nurse, respiratory therapist, pharmacist and other provider who interacts with a patient—through shift changes and across multiple days—connects on a personal level with patients and families,” David says. “When circumstances are frightening and uncertain, our patients deserve the best whole-person care we can give them—physical, mental, emotional and spiritual.”

More committed than ever

After five weeks of recovery, David returned to work. Now, as the president of Adventist Health Portland, he keeps his experience as a patient front and center as he works with his team.

“For providers, this is their job. For patients, it’s a major life event,” David says. “When patients are giving us their trust, we must treat that gift with love and respect.”

David’s tumor hasn’t returned. He has to take hormone replacements to make up for the pituitary tissue lost. Most importantly he’s come through his own life event as patient with even more appreciation for Adventist Health’s mission to live God’s love by inspiring health, wholeness and hope.

“I am more committed than ever to making sure that every member of our team listens, really listens, to each patient and their family members,” David says.


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