Tami Stone knows she thanked Dr. Richard Ellenbogen countless times when she was under his care after surgery in 1999. But she had to say it one more time.
On Sept. 12 — her 30th anniversary at Harborview — she did. Stone, a board-certified registered nurse, is about to retire. Looking back, she realized the last two decades of her career could have been completely different if she hadn’t contacted Ellenbogen.
“This wouldn’t have happened without him putting me back together,” Stone said. “I’m so grateful for the support he gave me before, during and after the surgery. Dr. Ellenbogen is amazing.”
Back in 1999, Stone discovered that she had a Chiari malformation, a congenital condition in which the brain stem extends into the spinal canal. It had worsened when she was injured while unloading a patient from an ambulance.
A coworker mentioned a surgeon they had worked with at Walter Reed Army Medical Center who did pediatric Chiari repairs and was now at Seattle Children’s Hospital.
“When I made that phone call, I thought Dr. Ellenbogen would give me the name of a surgeon elsewhere,” Stone said. “Instead, he scheduled an appointment to meet and told me to bring my husband and young family.”
Six weeks later, Stone had surgery at UW Medical Center. Rehabilitation was slow. Ellenbogen told Stone that there was a chance she might never work as a nurse again. “I just told him, ‘that’s not an option.’ So Dr. Ellenbogen stuck with me.”
He recommended a rheumatologist and referred Stone to the Harborview Headache Clinic to help manage post-op symptoms. She eventually returned to work as an Ambulatory Care Nurse in the Burn and Plastic Surgery Clinic. At first, it was challenging to transition from the pace of Airlift Northwest (and, before that, Harborview’s Burn ICU) to that of the clinic. Then, one day, a patient came to his appointment with an overflowing file of paperwork.
“’I don’t want to sound ungrateful that you saved my life,’” Stone remembers the man saying. “’But right now what I need is help doing this disability paperwork. If I can’t make my mortgage, I won’t be able to keep a roof over my family’s heads.’”
She still tears up recounting the story.
“It was the most powerful experience of my career,” Stone said. “I realized the thing most important at that moment is what the patient thought was most important. If that man was worried about losing his home, he was not going to focus on healing and range of motion. Period.”
For Stone, it was a revelation that she was providing care that was every bit as important as working in acute trauma or emergencies. She grew to love ambulatory care. She currently works with patients addicted to opiates at Harborview’s Adult Medicine Clinic Office-Based Opiate Treatment Program.
And she’ll continue to do so after retirement — as a volunteer.