Paul Caldwell was returning home one evening last spring when a reckless driver nearly ended his life. As Paul crossed Sheridan Road on Chicago’s far north side, the motorist ran a red light. Paul remembers the sound of tires screeching just before the car hit him. His injuries were severe. One ankle was badly damaged, as were both arms.
Paul was rushed to a nearby hospital, where surgeons were able to stabilize him and repair his ankle. The worst damage was to Paul’s right arm, which had absorbed the brunt of the impact when he hit the pavement. The impact had shattered his elbow into many different pieces. There was so much tissue damage that doctors couldn’t operate until Paul’s body began to repair itself. They put him in a cast and told him that he had only a 21-day window in which surgeons could try to repair the damage to his arm.
Losing the use of an arm would be devastating for anyone. For Paul, though, it would have special significance. A music lover, Paul had worked as a conductor for two of Chicago’s best known choral groups since 2001. He had recently accepted a new job across the country to lead the internationally renowned Seattle Men’s Chorus and Seattle Women’s Chorus. Without the use of his arm, Paul would be unable to work as a professional conductor.
Paul checked into a nursing home to begin recovery and wait for the tissue to heal enough to allow surgery. As he waited, he realized that he hadn’t told his primary care physician what had happened to him. He contacted his doctor and told him how desperate he was to find the right surgeon to repair his right arm. Paul was not especially hopeful. One emergency room doctor had referred to his mangled arm as “a bag of bones.” Another doctor had advised Paul that he probably would never regain function in that arm beyond being able to pull a shirt over it.
Paul’s primary care physician called him back the following day. “I want you to see Dr. Kevin Chen,” he said. “I’ve made you an appointment for 8:00 tomorrow.” The next morning, Paul went to see Dr. Chen, who specializes in complex surgeries involving upper extremities. “The prognosis was pretty grim,” explained Paul. “Dr. Chen couldn’t remove my cast and get a better look at my arm, so he didn’t make any promises about what he could or couldn’t do for me.” Nonetheless, Paul decided that Dr. Chen was his best option and scheduled surgery for later that week.
When they went into the operating room, Dr. Chen finally got his first good look at Paul’s arm. “Paul’s elbow was broken into a lot of pieces and was severely compromised. I knew this was going to be a complex procedure,” said Dr. Chen. During a surgery that lasted more than four hours, Dr. Chen cut bone to expose Paul’s elbow joint. He then proceeded to rebuild Paul’s elbow, using multiple plates and more than 20 screws.
Paul’s close friend Tara had accompanied him to the hospital that day. The two of them had prepared themselves for the worst. So when Dr. Chen emerged with a smile on his face, Tara was optimistic for the first time in weeks. As Dr. Chen began to explain what he’d done during surgery, said Tara, “He was ecstatic about how well things had gone.”
The surgery had been very successful, so much so that Paul decided to proceed with the relocation to Seattle for his new job. His recovery process and rehab was lengthy, but Paul slowly regained use of his right arm.
“Dr. Chen is my hero,” said Paul. “He gave me more of an arm than I thought I’d ever have again. There is no gesture that I need in conducting that I don’t have … and that is something that I treasure. My new doctors here in Seattle are very amazed by this new arm of mine,” explained Paul. “I’ve seen them staring at the x-rays and talking to each other about what Dr. Chen was able to pull off.”
“Every time I lift my arm to take a sip of coffee instead of bending my head down towards the cup, I realize what an impact he’s had on my life. Things could have been very different had I not found Dr. Chen. The fact that our paths crossed when I needed him makes me feel like the luckiest man alive.”