Top Doctors

Top Doctors 2015: Adventures in Medicine

Patients share their experiences, from breast cancer to chronic pain, gender identity, and childhood anxiety. Illustrations by Owen Gatley

By Jeanny Rhee, Aoife Reilly, Christina Tiberio, and Atoosa Moinzadeh August 4, 2015 Published in the August 2015 issue of Seattle Met

Search our interactive database of this year's top doctors and practitioners.

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A 1,500-Mile Transition

Kieran lived as a female for 30 years before finally deciding to transition to male. Only in rural southern Minnesota such a change proved to be a challenge. The local therapist insisted on referring to him as “she” and “her,” even after Kieran’s repeated requests for male pronouns. In the doctor’s office he was diagnosed with gender identity disorder and struggled to find a physician willing to provide sex reassignment surgery. Searching for areas of the country with the largest and most supportive transgender community, he found that Seattle scored near top of the list. 

In 2010, the former “army brat” packed his bags and bought a one-way ticket to the Northwest. Soon after, he read a short but transformative review with Kevin ­Hatfield, transgender medicine specialist at the Polyclinic in Seattle. Hatfield started Kieran with hormone therapy and referred him to a slew of doctors working with trans patients, including a therapist, a surgeon, and a gynecologist. Kieran underwent a full hysterectomy and is in the prepping stages for chest reconstructive surgery. 

“Seattle is incredibly welcoming of LGBT culture and communities, and you can see that in the resources available,” he says. “This place is a crazy melting pot, and I love it here.” —Jeanny Rhee

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Waking Up from a Nightmare

Hans was a vibrant and outgoing 10-year-old boy before everything changed overnight. Frustrated, angry, and confused over the simplest things, often wedging himself between his bed and wall to cope, he begged his parents to make the feelings stop.

“A psychiatrist suggested OCD,” says Heather, Hans’s mother. “Another thought that we were enabling his behavior.”

In spring 2014, Heather learned about PANDAS, an autoimmune condition hypothesized to occur when an infection triggers inflammation in the brain. Tics, anxiety, and personality changes are common symptoms. These changes happen suddenly and can often be misdiagnosed. 

When their pediatrician’s antibiotics didn’t help enough, any hope of a rapid recovery diminished. Summer holidays and family visits were out of the question, as Hans was too scared to leave the house. “We were desperate for help,” says Heather, “but nobody in our area knew enough about the condition”—until she found Hatha Gbedawo of Vital Kids Medicine on a PANDAS support website. For the first time Heather spoke with someone who knew more about the disease than she did. Dr. Gbedawo devised a long-term plan using dietary changes and natural supplements instead of antibiotics alone. These changes relieved Hans’s symptoms and eradicated infection. Choosing a natural method was not something Heather had in mind, but she believes it saved her son’s life. —Aoife Reilly


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Rising Above Pain

Aviation engineer Robin Corley lived for the arts and the outdoors. An avid kayaker and hiker, she also played violin for the Skagit Symphony. But this life full of motion and music came to a halt in 2001 when she ruptured a disk gardening. “I thought I was going to live the rest of my life in a scourge of pain,” she says. 

Corley resigned to wearing skin patches that deliver fentanyl, a stronger medication than morphine. The drug only allowed her eight manageable hours a day before she needed rest. She could do her job, but the treatment kept her a prisoner on weekends.

Over the next decade, Corley visited 25 different doctors. A top neurosurgeon in Houston insisted the pain was just in her head. Others suggested Corley undergo spinal fusion, which would severely limit flexibility. When she received yet another referral to a pain specialist in Belle­vue, she made the drive from Whidbey to Washington Center for Pain Management without much hope. But instead of finding another white coat who liked to talk and not listen, Corley met a fellow University of Oklahoma alum, Hyun Hong, whose first option wasn’t to put her through major surgery. Instead he suggested less invasive radiofrequency ablation, which would treat the pain while keeping Corley on her feet.

Thanks to the guiding hand of Dr. Hong, Corley avoided a major procedure and ditched the fentanyl. She learned that one must be her own advocate, especially during painful journeys, and not just accept the fate prescribed to them. Now Corley considers herself the “luckiest girl in Washington state” and recently celebrated her pain-free life by hiking Mount St. Helens. —Christina Tiberio

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A Race Against Time

Jennifer Lail was in full grad school grind mode in 2010 when she got the dreaded call. Her oncologist, Sara Javid of Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, had found something suspicious in Lail’s mammogram. 

They caught the abnormal cells in her left breast early, but the timing couldn’t be worse. A few months later Lail would receive a Fulbright Scholarship to study climate change governance in Iceland.

“I thought I would have to turn it down,” says Lail. As a single, self-­supporting grad student in her 40s, she couldn’t imagine undergoing two separate recovery periods in time for her departure that spring. But Dr. Javid wasn’t about to let cancer derail her patient’s career. Lail still remembers her doctor’s comforting words: “We’re going to figure out a way to get through this.” 

With some help from reconstructive surgeon Otway Louie, Dr. Javid scheduled three procedures leading up to Lail’s departure date. They performed the 12-hour mastectomy and reconstructive microsurgery earlier in the year, then a tattooing just three days before her flight, allowing Lail to forgo multiple recovery periods. Thanks to the advocacy of her doctor, Jennifer got on the plane, en route to Reykjavik, with a few bandages and a bright future. —Atoosa Moinzadeh

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