I met Dr. Eric Fonkalsrud in 1983. He was Chief of Pediatric Surgery at UCLA Hospital, and his patients were often newborn infants with congenital malformations. I was 42-years old, happily married and had two young school-age children. Let me give you the background for our meeting.
I had been battling ulcerative colitis since I was fourteen, and in 1983 my gastroenterologist detected cancer cells in my large intestine My gastroenterologist had been following Dr. Fonkalsrud’s active and clinical research program at UCLA in the management of Inflammatory Bowel disease in children and adults and the development of the Ileoanal Pouch Procedure for patients with sever ulcerative colitis. My gastroenterologist referred me to Dr. Fonkalsrud for an interview and consultation. I believed Dr. Fonkalsrud was used to working with infants and young adults so my “advanced age” would not fit into his research program. Dr. Fonkalsrud asked all kinds of questions about my general health, any female issues, blood pressure, etc. All seemed to be quite satisfactory, and he agreed to take a gamble on me as a surgery patient. I learned later that my big plus was that I had never been on systemic cortisone. On August 8, 1983, I was the 42nd patient for this experimental procedure; I had a follow-up procedure in January 1984.
I had a tough recovery from the nine-hour initial surgery and addition of a temporary stoma, but Dr. Fonkalsrud and his trained nurses guided me through it. The Doctor did many very smart things. For example, he held periodic informal evening meetings with his patients in a med school lecture hall – so he could answer our myriad of questions. In addition, since the Doctor and his staff could not personally respond to all the calls for assistance, recent patients used the informal meetings to discuss their recovery issues with patients who were further along in recovery. The earlier patients would council the most recent patients, and often suggested simple remedies. These patient-to-patient talks proved to be most important, so a patient-to-patient network was informally put together. I gave my phone number to our exclusive group.
Eight weeks after my initial surgery, my husband and I ignored the Doctor’s best advice and went on a long-planned hot air ballooning trip in Austria. Dr. Fonkalsrud said he had never had a patient leave the country so early in recovery. Nevertheless, he provided me with the names of doctors he had trained in the procedure in the European cities we were visiting. Luckily, I never had to call on any of these doctors.
In 1989 I went through a “revision” surgery – as the experimental procedure had been revised and improved. During the early years I suffered with quite severe arthritis in my hands. After the “revision” surgery the arthritis completely disappeared – never to return.
Just a few years back, when Dr. Fonkalsrud retired his position in the Medical School as Chief of Pediatric Surgery, there was a lovely grand party at the Riviera Country Club. Colleagues and doctors from many countries that the Doctor had trained, as well as many of his patients, family and friends attended. There were lots of inspiring speeches. Many of Doctor’s patients were infants and children at the time of their surgery and could not speak of him from personal experience, so I was asked by Peggy Fonkalsrud, the Doctor’s wife, to give some comments from the podium representing a patient’s point of view. It was a glorious evening for a prince of a man.
I am now 71 years old and have had a marvelous life and health for the last 30 years. I have been able to see my sons grow up and become wonderful fathers of my five grandchildren. I have this in great measure as a result of the incredible gift of caring and genius of Dr. Eric Fonkalsrud.