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Call him 'Coach': Operating from a wheelchair? Just another day at the office for this plastic surgeon and Little League dad

Article-Call him 'Coach': Operating from a wheelchair? Just another day at the office for this plastic surgeon and Little League dad

Maui plastic surgeon Peter A. Galpin, M.D., doesn't know what all the fuss is about, but he's been getting a lot of media attention lately. Last October, he was honored with the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services' Highest Recognition Award as part of National Disability Awareness Month. As it turns out, Dr. Galpin is the world's only paraplegic surgeon. "You'd think there are at least 30 of us out there," he deadpans.

Dr. Galpin seems almost perplexed and is incredibly humbled by the honor. He says he does not think that being a paraplegic surgeon is anything special because it is all he knows.

"I am a paraplegic when I go to bed and when I wake up. It is the background of my life. For me to complain about it would be like you complaining about the weather," he shrugs. "The people who really deserve the recognition are those who put their reputations on the line because they believed I could do what I said I could do."

CHAMPIONS AND NAYSAYERS Dr. Galpin, who was in his 20s when he was hit on his motorcycle by a drunk driver in a stolen car, says that the lifealtering accident never swayed him from his goal to become a doctor. He became determined to go into medicine while he served two tours in Vietnam as a Special Forces medic.

"I realized I wanted be able to do more than what I was able to for the guys over there," he says.

He would not have considered plastic surgery had it not been for Don Parsa, M.D., who was chief of plastic surgery at University of Hawaii when Dr. Galpin was in medical school there.

"I don't know what [Don] saw in me, but without my knowing, he talked to the chairman and said 'I want this guy to be on my service,'" he recalls. Dr. Parsa coaxed him to stay on with plastic surgery for four months, though he allows that he had little interest in the specialty at the time.

"We spent a lot of time at Shriners Children's Hospital doing cleft lip and palette work. I really got to see that plastic surgery is more than cosmetic," Dr. Galpin says. "I love the challenge of the cosmetic aspect, but I think that one of the great gifts that plastic surgeons have is the ability to restore people to normalcy, who have been injured or traumatized or deformed by cancer."

There were many other champions in Dr. Galpin's training, as well as a few naysayers, who suggested — in nice and politically correct ways — that the medical student find another profession. The biggest challenge of his training was getting his foot in the door. Luckily, he had his Special Forces training to fall back on.

"I knew that you did not have to be able to tap dance in order to do surgery. You need your hands and your mind," Dr. Galpin says. He got no special treatment during his medical training, having to compete on an uneven playing field with all the able-bodied students. Before the disabled in America had so many protective laws, Dr. Galpin was left to his own creativity and resources to find a way to perform surgery standing up. He went to a wheelchair designer who created a chair that would allow him to stand in the operating room. He has not used that custom standing wheelchair for some 13 years. Now, as chief of surgery at Maui, he has everyone in the OR sitting.

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