After heart surgery Dr. Walter Lawrence is back on the tennis court. Photo by Ash Daniel
For about six decades, Dr. Walter Lawrence experienced the surgery theater with scalpel firmly in hand, as the first chair of the surgical oncology division at what is now VCU Medical Center and later as the director of the Massey Cancer Center.
But last March, the active 88-year-old, who remains an emeritus director at Massey and an emeritus medical professor, began experiencing shortness of breath during his regular tennis game.
"They found it was because I needed an aortic valve replacement," says Lawrence, whose ailment was determined severe enough that his doctors scheduled surgery the same month. "I figured if the doctors thought it was urgent, I'd better get on with it."
Needless to say, the experience on the other side of the scalpel gave him a new perspective, but it also gave him a renewed respect for his colleagues in the Richmond medical community.
As a longtime oncology surgeon, Lawrence says he was accustomed to taking a hands-on, lead role with his patients. But with heart surgery, he says, it seemed more of a collective effort because the procedure is so complex and so many specialists were involved.
"Nowadays, with something like this, it's a complicated thing with lots of people doing lots of things, but you don't have anybody who seems to be totally running the show," he says. "It was a little different than my experience because you don't end up with one person taking care of you — there's not much continuity. Which I'm not critical of, it's just different."
And of course, as a physician, there was that small matter of adjusting to not being the guy in charge, either. Lawrence says he relied on an old canard from his brother-in-law, Eddie Shokes, a pro-baseball player with the Cincinnati Reds in the 1940s: "Don't think too much or you'll weaken the team." Not thinking too much turned out to be good advice for being a patient. "It's hard to do that, but I found out it worked out best," Lawrence says.
Now back in tennis-playing shape, he says, "I was very impressed with how well organized everything was and how effective everybody was. I'm quite satisfied with how it worked out."