Dr. Susan Lanni checks the ultrasound of Shannon Pemberton, in her 36th week of pregnancy, while her husband, Jonathan, watches. Photo by Jay Paul
A shoulder injury could have ended Dr. Susan Lanni's career. Instead, she says, it has made her a better doctor.
Lanni, who works with high-risk patients in maternal and fetal medicine at VCU Medical Center, starts her story with a kind of Currier-and-Ives scene of herself pulling her 2-year-old son on a sled down a snow-covered street in her neighborhood the day after Christmas in 2010. Suddenly, things went awry.
"I slipped and fell," she says. "The first thing that hit the ground was my right elbow." Her arm felt like it was frozen in place, and she was in pain. "I sat there and said, ‘Wow, I did something bad.' "
After taking ibuprofen around the clock for more than a week, she made an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon for early February of 2011. An MRI confirmed that her rotator cuff was partially torn. That March, Lanni had surgery that was designed to prevent further damage and create space for her muscles to move freely, and she began physical therapy. Meanwhile, she was forced to cut back on her work duties. "I do a lot of ultrasounds," she says. "I deliver babies, and I couldn't raise my arm above waist height."
She improved to a point, but when she began to resume some regular activities, her shoulder got worse. After six months, her physical therapist expressed concern about her lack of progress. Lanni finally called the surgeon, and he scheduled another MRI. She then made an appointment with him, but when a scheduling conflict arose, he referred her to someone else.
The second surgeon reviewed the images with her and showed her that the muscle that had been partially torn was hanging on by a thread. On Dec. 7, 2011, Lanni had a second surgery, in which her muscle was reattached to the humerus. Barely out of anesthesia, "I got a phone call from the surgeon to ask how I was doing." The anesthesiologist called, too. During a follow-up appointment, the surgeon showed Lanni images of her repaired shoulder, and they remained in contact. Three months later, when something started hurting while she was at work, she called him, saying she was worried. "He walked over to my office, where I was seeing patients, and examined me in my office."
Lanni says the experience has changed her approach with her own patients. "I call all my patients with lab results, even if they're normal." She also takes more time to explain things during office visits. She gives patients her cell phone number and communicates with them by email.
"I made the decision that if you think about somebody and wonder how they're doing, call them," she says. "Being on the receiving end, that phone call makes all the difference in the world."