September 2018

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T M C » P U L S E | S E P T E M B E R 2 0 1 8 20 O n Dec. 30, 2007, Eugene Alford, M.D., put on his Sunday best and prepared to head to church with his family. His brown hair was neatly coiffed and his thick mustache perfectly groomed, but for some reason, as he stood in his home in Houston's Montrose neighborhood, he couldn't quite shake a "weird" feeling. "I had this real sense of forebod- ing that something really bad was going to happen," Alford said. "It was a feeling that I was going to lose a person or I was going to fall from grace." Alford, a facial plastic and reconstructive surgeon at Houston Methodist Hospital, decided to skip church and spend the day on his 86-acre farm in Bellville, 70 miles west of Houston. He hopped on his tractor, a 20th anniversary present from his wife, Mary, and started mowing the pasture. For Alford, ever the country boy, driving a tractor was the ultimate form of therapy. He wanted to create a deer blind and had mapped out some brush he needed to clear with his tractor, which was equipped with a front- end loader. As he plowed through the thicket, he spotted a dead white oak tree squarely in the middle of the clearing. He rolled up to it twice, each time backing away. "For some reason, on the third try, I thought, 'Quit being a chicken and do it!'" Alford recalled. Determined to remove the tree, Alford lifted the front-end loader of his tractor and accelerated toward it, hoping to jostle the dead oak into submission. But water had collected at the tree fork and rotted through the wood. As the tractor dug into the trunk, the 950-pound tree top snapped off and collapsed forward onto Alford, pinching him between the steering wheel and the tractor seat. His spine was crushed immediately. "I knew I was paralyzed and I knew I was hurt," said Alford, who was 48 at the time. The tree knocked Alford's cell phone holster off his belt and onto the ground beneath the tractor, out of reach. His heart sank, but then he remembered what he had done before he climbed onto the tractor, something seemingly inconsequen- tial that he had never done before: He had taken his phone off his belt and placed it in his shirt pocket. He reached for the phone and hit speed dial for Mary. She was in the kitchen at home in Houston, steeped in commotion. Two of their kids were preparing for their church's youth ski trip to Colorado the next day, and a gaggle of their daughter's high school friends was hanging out on the front porch. Still, when Mary heard the house phone chime, she picked up on the first ring. "I was calling to say goodbye because I really thought I was going to die," Alford said. Through labored breathing, he managed to tell his wife what happened. In a panic, Mary handed the phone to their youngest son, Charles, who had just turned 15, with instructions to keep Gene on the line while she called for help on her cell phone. Charles kept his father talking, giving him the encourage- ment he needed to hang on just a little longer. Little did Alford know that 14 months later, he would be on the receiving end of a similar call in the face of another family tragedy. "I couldn't let Gene stop talking. I knew enough to think, 'We have to keep him awake,'" Mary said. Alford was trapped in Austin County, and Mary was calling from Harris County. She dialed 911, but after learning she could not send help to another county, she franti- cally contacted friends who lived next door to their Bellville farm. They answered the phone right away, called 911 and rushed out of their house toward Alford's property. Meanwhile, the local sheriff over- heard the volunteer fire department call go out for Alford's location. He recognized the address, set out on foot to find Alford pinned down in his tractor and immediately radioed Life Flight for help. In a rush of adrenaline, the sher- iff and Alford's next-door neighbor managed to hoist the massive tree off Alford's body. Shortly thereafter, Life Flight arrived and airlifted the doctor to the Level 1 trauma center at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center. • • • After trauma doctors stabi- lized Alford, he was transferred to Houston Methodist to undergo surgery the following day, New Year's Eve. He suffered six broken ribs, a broken collarbone and a broken shoulder blade from the accident. Worse, the tree crushed nearly every thoracic vertebra in his spine and pinched the blood vessels that supply blood to his spinal cord. The injury paralyzed Alford from the waist down, but because his spinal cord wasn't fully severed, his condi- tion is classified as an incomplete spinal cord injury, meaning he has some feeling and function in his legs, but cannot walk. (continued) How one surgeon survived two tragedies Eugene Alford, M.D., is a facial plastic and reconstructive surgeon at Houston Methodist Hospital. I was calling to say goodbye because I really thought I was going to die. — EUGENE ALFORD, M.D. Facing: Alford and two surgical resi- dents perform nasal reconstruction on a patient on June 28, 2018, at Houston Methodist Outpatient Center. B y S h a n l e y P i e r c e OUT UNDER from

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