The journey from patient to surgeon — Dr. Bobby Kalantar shares how his experience shaped his patient outlook

Practice Management

Undergoing spine surgery is often an overall daunting experience for any patient, even a patient in medical school. Bobby Kalantar, MD, chief of orthopedic spine surgery at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C., can put himself in a back pain patient's shoes after first-hand experience.

Bobby Kalantar MDDr. Kalantar was a young adult when he underwent his surgery, and the technology available was lagging compared to advancements today. Technological advancements have paved the way for minimally invasive techniques, significantly truncating recovery time. But patients still have many qualms undergoing surgery.


"Surgery is a scary premise. Patients are especially fearful about spine surgery, and I remember being in that same seat," Dr. Kalantar said. "I can identify with patients and take the fear out of it. I spend a little bit more time with them. If a patient can't get past that fear, it is hard to make the best decision."


When he was attending college, Dr. Kalantar began experiencing a persistent pain in his right leg. After continuing to worsen, a workup led to his spondylolisthesis diagnosis. While the pain subdued during his college years after undergoing physical therapy and wearing a back brace, the pain returned and quickly escalated midway through Dr. Kalantar's career as a med student at Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk.


"The pain came back with a vengeance," Dr. Kalantar said. "I tried an epidural and physical therapy. I couldn't bear the pain, and it was affecting how I was doing in school."


Faced with the prospect of enduring more pain in addition to the fact that the spondylolisthesis had progressed from grade 1 to grade 2 , Dr. Kalantar decided to undergo a posterior lumbar fusion surgery, which caused the pain to completely dissipate.


When choosing a specialty, Dr. Kalantar's athletic background and his experience as a patient drove him to pursue orthopedics.  "I always knew I wanted to do something surgical," he said. "I had exposure to orthopedic surgeons and enjoyed their ability to fix things. As a younger resident at Baylor, I wanted to find out if spine surgery was something I could like because my experience and the relief of pain was so life changing."


Spine surgeons need not undergo surgery to understand a patient's experience. Although a patient may understand they need surgery, their fear often triumphs over that necessity. Therefore, surgeons can first help patients by helping them arrive at the decision of having the operation. A surgeon plays a critical role in helping a patient understand the surgical process and reassuring the patient of the surgeon's role to help them in whatever way they are able.


"We are in a field of interacting with people," Dr. Kalantar said. "When I had surgery, I remember everything my surgeon said and would go over it in my mind 50 times. It is important for surgeons to understand patients are looking to you to guide them through the whole process. Patients have to know you are going to help them."


More articles on practice management:
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Employed physician compensation & career satisfaction: 8 key notes
How has patient care evolved over the years? 6 key points



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