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When Doctors Need Doctors: Sometimes, It’s Not the Doctor Who Heals

Rina Shah, MD, Deputy chief of staff and primary care physician, San Francisco Veteran’s affairs

Rina Shah, MD

Dr. Rina Shah


In April of this year, I took a really bad fall at work. I was taking the stairs from the third floor to the second, and I tumbled when I was four steps from the landing. Because I was trying to protect my head and neck with my right hand, I landed on my right elbow. I had multiple fractures of the humerus and a dislocated elbow—but at least the brain was OK.

When an anesthesiologist arrived at the stairs, he started checking my head and neck, which is what you do first. At that moment, I said to him, “You can talk me through this thing, but lying down, I’m the patient, not the doctor. You will not hear an argument from me.”

The fracture was very severe—the lower part of the humerus had shattered into eight pieces. Putting the fragments back together took three titanium plates and 16 screws. When I woke up after the surgery, one of my nerves was paralyzed. The feeling in my thumb and index finger is abnormal. Hopefully, it’s not permanent, but nerves take a very long time to grow back. Under perfect conditions, the nerve will grow one millimeter a day—barely an inch a month. I’ve recovered enough that now I can lift my wrist against gravity, but I’m still waiting for the fingers to kick in. The nerve has to grow from before your elbow to your wrist—it’s a long journey. Unfortunately, the ligaments in the joint were completely torn and unsalvageable, so I had to have a ligament transplant from a cadaver. When you do that, they don’t let you bear weight or lift too much for the first six months. Now I’m allowed to lift up to four pounds with that arm. But that’s the weight limit—a gallon of milk.

I’m back at work, but haven’t been able to return to direct patient care yet because the paralyzed nerve affects my dominant hand—I don’t want to miss anything during examinations. It wouldn’t be fair to my patients.

Accolades are always given to the surgeons, but in retrospect, it was my hand therapist who was able to put me back together. She’s the one who washed my hand after surgery; she’s the one who told me that I could shower again. What was amazing to me is that to recover, you need not only the surgeon but also the hand therapist, the nurses, you need all these people thinking about you and trying to help you mend. As deputy chief of staff, I’ve always said that it takes a very large team. I got to see that team come to fruition in front of my eyes.


More Doctors' Survival Stories:
Beating Breast Cancer with Help from Beyoncé
A Superhero Surgeon Brought to His Knees
After Dodging a Death Sentence, Looking for a Cure

From Pain, a New Purpose

Getting Back to Life After an Assault

For a Workaholic, the Misery of Bed Rest

Working Through Lung Cancer



Originally published in the January issue of San Francisco

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