The traumatic injuries that orthopaedist Michael R. Baumgaertner, MD, treats have a signature all their own: violent, high impact assaults on bone, nerve and soft tissue. Resulting from long falls, car accidents and motorcycle crashes, or “gas and gravity,” they bear a pattern markedly different from the typical slip and stumble. Recovery, likewise, follows a different, much longer course. “It’s more of a marathon than a sprint,” says Baumgaertner, who has been at Yale since 1988 and now heads the orthopaedic trauma service.
“The human body,” he adds, “was not designed to fly 80 miles per hour through the air into hard objects.”
But in two decades at his craft, Baumgaertner has learned to repair injuries that might seem hopeless, and to avoid pitfalls that could lead to loss of limb and function years in the future. The most important lesson from his experience, he says, is that “good enough is often not good enough, that you need to take extra steps with these kinds of injuries. If you can reconstruct [the limb or joint] properly, it is remarkable how patients can recover from truly devastating injuries.”
The physical recovery is only half the battle. Baumgaertner has watched patients endure the psychological and social hardships that often go hand in hand with a long, slow recuperation and that can include loss of employment, loss of relationships and sometimes major depression. Being able to tell patients what lies ahead, to help their families pace themselves and to encourage them through the worst times has made a big difference in many lives.
“It’s more than just a broken bone; it’s a broken life,” Baumgaertner says of the aftermath following severe traumas. “But you tell them, ‘In the long run, this is what you are going to have and it’s going to be worth it. It’s OK to admit your fears and frustrations, and just hang in there.’ ” The teaching mission of YMG completes the picture, he adds. “When you can have these discussions while a resident is listening–it’s something they don’t get anywhere else. And I think they benefit.”
More about Dr. Baumgaertner
Title: Professor of orthopaedics and rehabilitation; chief of Orthopaedic Trauma Service.
Area of expertise: Complex fractures and fracture problems.
Place of Birth: St. Paul, Minn.
College: Stanford University.
Med School: University of California, San Diego.
Training: Residency in surgery and orthopaedic surgery at University of California, San Francisco; fellowship in orthopaedic trauma with the AO Foundation in Switzerland.
Family: Married to Irene Baumgaertner, RN; four children: Sarah, 16; Emily, 14; Benjamin, 10; Geoffrey, 5.
What is most challenging to you in academic medicine? Conflict resolution between being a good and productive clinician, a good resident teacher, a good regional and national educator and a good parent/husband.
What is most rewarding? Completely changing the natural history of a traumatic injury through a well-conceived and executed surgical intervention.
What do you like most about your practice? A flexible work environment, dedicated staff and very bright residents and students.
Personal interests or pastimes: Huh?
Last book read: Captain Underpants and the Attack of the Talking Toilets, by Dave Pilkey (with Ben B., age 10)
What would you do to improve our clinical environment if you had a magic wand? Improve interdepartmental communication and create incentives for as many operational tasks as possible.