‘I’m a Neurosurgeon Who Can’t Move. Now What?’

Neurosurgeon Who Can't Walk

My ski accident reminded me to keep my patients' humanity front and center

I knew I was still breathing. I laid on my belly in a Superman position—albeit with zero superpowers. Veering in a different direction from my friends while skiing left me physically and medically humbled by a new version of an old sensation: powerlessness.

As a friend led us down the ski run in Colorado, I saw on my path a 6-foot snow berm leading to a smooth cat track, the flatter trails used by snowcats to move around a mountain. The last thing I remembered was skiing across it. Then I awoke on the ground. My neck was turned to the left and the ground’s surface was hard on my right cheek. I noticed blood on the snow next to my nose and reached out to stop it. Well, I tried to reach out and stop it. My arms were pinned behind me and wouldn’t move.

I'm a neurosurgeon who can't move, I thought.Now what?
—David Langer, MD

That was the moment I realized I couldn’t move my legs. I’m a neurosurgeon who can’t move, I thought. Now what?

“I’m a quadriplegic,” I screamed to a fellow skier who asked how I was doing.

I waited for ski patrol because it was all I could do. I became anxious and felt complete loss. The idea that I’d utterly failed my wife and children washed over me.

I thought about the tremendous impact my new, physically limited physical self was going to have on me and my family. I imagined how my wife, Nancy, would take care of me. I thought of my son seeing me in distress, just as I’d seen my own dad after his stroke when I was just 22 years old.

I’ve screwed up my life, I thought. For a few minutes I cycled through fear, anger, disbelief, and loss. There was no controlling my emotions.

Even before the accident, I was not the picture of the detached surgeon. I know the limits of my professional powers and skills. That has shaped me into a surgeon who strives to connect with my patients and offer them not just surgical precision, but empathy. It’s a point of pride for me and a daily reminder that I entered this field for personal reasons. I’d lost my dad to a stroke; it would be a disconnect for me to manage my work without my whole heart.

Laying there with my own livelihood and life on the line, I wondered, would physicians and surgeons embrace my humanity, the way I did for my patients, or would they see me as a bunch of broken parts?

Pain overtook me. My neck hurt so much that it was painful to speak.

I won’t have to worry about operating anymore, I told myself. I can sell my city apartment—maybe trick out our house to be wheelchair accessible.

I continued to reimagine my life as I waited for the ski patrol: I’d walk my children down the aisle at their weddings in an electric wheelchair. My wife would have to take our dogs for long Sunday walks.

When the ski patrol arrived, I told them I was a neurosurgeon with a cervical spinal cord injury.

“I need an airlift from the mountain,” I said, knowing I was too unstable to make it down several ski trails secured to a backboard and sled. As they took me away on a sled, I watched the sky and trees and snow. The thought that this might be my last time on a mountain was interrupted by shock waves of pain from the bumpy ride to the helicopter. When the pilot asked me which hospital I wanted to go to, I let the ski patrol decide. I leaned on others to be the experts.


—Article by David Langer, MD

Benefits of Membership

“The AANS/CNS Spine Section brings together neurosurgeons, orthopedic spine surgeons, spine surgery fellows, as well as residents and advanced practice providers focused on spinal surgery. The Spine Section advances our interests, represents us in national advocacy, and disseminates science. Becoming a member means joining this exceptional community and helping it grow.” ...Read More >