Remebering John W. McDonald, III, MD, PhD

Remebering John W. McDonald, III, MD, PhD

Posted by AskNurseLinda on Dec 18, 2017 8:56 am

We have lost one of the great innovators in spinal cord injury research and treatment as well as an outstanding individual. Even if you do not know the name, Dr. McDonald, you certainly have reaped the benefits of his medical knowledge. He is a person who actually changed healthcare for individuals with paralysis. Not many people have had such a huge impact over such a short period of time.

When individuals entered into the medical field, just as recently as twenty years ago, they were taught that spinal cord injury is a permanent condition. The patient must be educated to live with paralysis and move on. One voice challenged this idea in the 1990’s. That was Dr. McDonald. When everyone said no, he said why not. From that moment, he challenged the medical community with the idea of returning function to individuals with paralysis.

I was lucky enough to be able to work with this man early in his career in spinal cord injury. Notice, I say I worked with him. This is the way our professional relationship blossomed, working together. He never made you feel like you worked for him, you always worked with him. If you wanted to pursue an idea, he gave you the freedom to do so. He was a great innovator. If you tried, that was all he wanted. There was never a failure, only learning opportunities.

Patients and families were enthralled by his personal bedside manner. When you were with him in the clinic or on the rehabilitation unit, he was 100% engaged in your issues, big or small. He would often sit with patients and families for hours just focused on them. He followed up with people over the long term, always interested, always learning from patient experiences.

Eventually, the practice became too big for one but he eagerly included others in the practice. Again, working with the other physicians, together, uniting. Doing what is best for everyone. If you did not see Dr. McDonald directly, you benefitted from his work, knowledge and research.

Even if you have never heard of Dr. McDonald, you are receiving the benefits of his knowledge. There were many changes in the way care is provided to individuals with paralysis, standing, weight supported walking, functional electrical stimulation and aquatic therapy. All of these treatments existed, many were thought to be outdated, but he brought them up to speed and individuals with paralysis benefitted with greatly improved function.

Probably one of the biggest innovations was to change the culture of healthcare for individuals with paralysis. This was to put one thought into the minds of patients, families and the healthcare community. This thought is HOPE. Previously, the door was closed, you would never improve after injury or disease. His culture of hope changed all of that. Suddenly, other researchers and medical personnel were thinking why not. The movement had begun.

One day, I was in a meeting with Dr. McDonald and another great colleague, Pat Rummerfield. Pat is an individual with a cervical level spinal cord injury from a car accident. He used many of the same theories in his recovery and now is ambulatory with upper extremity function. Even through only a few nerves in his neck are functioning, he has maximized his recovery. Dr. McDonald was intrigued by his function, looking to replicate it for others.

Dr. McDonald and Pat were looking for someone to help carry the message of recovery and hope to all individuals with paralysis. They were attempting to reach Christopher Reeve but not making any connections with agents, publicists, attorneys, anyone in his circle.

My thoughts were how as a nurse would I reach a patient? Then I thought I would call Christopher Reeve’s nurse. A bold move but there were no failures. I called the Reeve Foundation and asked to speak to his nurse. I was put right through. I have to admit, I was not prepared for this success but explained our program. The nurse said, just a minute, talk to him. Within minutes, I was on the phone with Christopher Reeve!

When such things happen so quickly, one does not always think through it correctly. For some reason, I thought if I put Christopher Reeve on hold that he might hang up. I had to get Dr. McDonald’s attention. The only thing I could think of at the moment was to wad a piece of paper and throw it across the hall into his office. Surely, Dr. McDonald would wonder about such behavior and come see what was happening.

One wad of paper, then two, three, four. I kept sending my little balls of paper over to him. No response until finally, all the paper balls came flying back. He thought I was playing a game! I made arrangements to meet Christopher Reeve when he was coming to town in a week. Then I told Dr. McDonald and Pat to show up at the assigned time. Again, he played along, thinking we would have a nice dinner because he never believed me right up until the time we walked into Christopher Reeve’s hotel room.

That was the start of a wonderful relationship of working together with Christopher Reeve and the Foundation. From that moment and still ongoing is a wonderful collaboration of supporting the needs of individuals with spinal cord injury and other paralysis. Dr. McDonald was active with colleagues and individuals supporting the mission, moving forward with treatments, research, care and HOPE.

It is unfortunate to lose such a bright star so young and with so much optimism ahead for improving patient care. Today, the world has changed for individuals with spinal cord injury. We know there are options, we know there is more work ahead. But the movement has skyrocketed because of John McDonald and we are all better off because of him. Thank you, John, my dear, sweet friend. Nurse Linda

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