When most people think of what a plastic surgeon could do for them, they might fantasize about a tummy tuck or a facelift. But for Gig Harbor’s Sue Galpin, a plastic surgeon helped save her leg.
Galpin and her husband Keith were getting ready to go out for a Valentine’s Day dinner when she tripped. “My knee went into the door jamb and then I twisted and fell.” At the hospital, they tried to take an X-ray but couldn’t because she wasn’t able to straighten her leg. “It was not happening,” she says. Eventually someone came up with the idea of using a mammogram machine to look at her knee.
“I had crushed my kneecap and broken both bones in my leg below the knee,” she recalls. Although the pain was unbearable, thanks to her mother’s advice she knew and believed that the better her attitude, the better and faster her recovery.
A surgeon in Gig Harbor stabilized the leg and then referred her to Kevin Corman, DO, an orthopedic surgeon with MultiCare Orthopedics & Sports Medicine. Dr. Corman in turn brought in Joshua Elston, MD, a board-certified surgeon with MultiCare Plastic & Reconstructive Surgery to perform a muscle flap, which involved moving muscle from another part of her leg to the injured area.
The two doctors often work closely on complicated reconstructions like Galpin’s. Between them, they performed eight surgeries on Galpin’s leg over the course of a year, and all during the COVID-19 pandemic.
She recalls meeting Dr. Elston after the first procedure. “Dr. Elston walked in my room, introduced himself, took his mask down and said ‘This is what I look like,’ “she says. “I really appreciated that.”
Initially, she was confused. “I imagine that he said he was a plastic surgeon,” she says. “But he was immediately talking about the muscle. My impression of a plastic surgeon was beautification. I was pleased to know he didn’t think I needed that,” she laughed. “I got my hopes up for a while, but they quickly dashed,” her husband, Keith teased of learning she’d be seeing a plastic surgeon.
Galpin says she doesn’t remember too much about those first couple of weeks, when she had several surgeries in a row. “They had me on really good painkillers,” she says. But Keith remembers vividly. “They sat me down and said ‘We aren’t having the conversation… yet. But given her age, we may have to talk about amputation.’”
“Dr. Elston is the one that broke it to me,” Sue recalled. “I told him I didn’t like him very much anymore.” Dr. Elston responded with “I guess we will have to save it then.”
After two weeks at Tacoma General Hospital, she went home in a wheelchair and with a PICC line to help deal with a staph infection in her leg.
Despite that, and a reaction to one of the antibiotics used, Galpin avoided further discussion of amputation. She credits the surgeons and their collaboration with each other and with her rheumatologist. “Every time we talked with Dr. Elston he told us ‘Whenever Dr. Corman is ready to do the next step in surgery, tell me and I will adjust my schedule and be there.’”
In January 2021, nearly a year after her accident, Galpin had the metal removed from her leg, and Dr. Elston worked to smooth a muscle flap that he wasn’t pleased with. “Initially it was two to three inches tall. Now it’s about half an inch.”
Today she’s walking, often without the aid of a cane, and doing physical therapy to increase the strength and mobility of her leg.
Dr. Elston, she says, helped with her healing not just in the operating room but during each office visit. “He was direct and truthful, but he was always giving me hope, saying ‘This is going to get better.’”
She added, “Dr. Elston’s staff was also very upbeat. It was like a reunion every other week when we would enter the office for appointments.”
As her in-home caregiver, Keith always felt Dr. Elston was good at making sure he felt able to ask questions and knew he was part of the team. “Of course, his attention was primarily on Susan,” Keith says, “but he was constantly complimenting me, making me feel more confident that the care I was giving was good.”
All of that helped make a challenging year a whole lot easier to take. “Not many doctors take the time to get to know you,” Galpin says. “But Dr. Elston really did.”