Patient with Dementia Supervises Hernia Repair

Original photo by Sven Golz

Original photo by Sven Golz

CALEDONIA, ND – Friday afternoon, Don Smisters wandered out of the Geriatric Care Unit at UEND Medical Center and into legend as he strolled to the operating theater.  He had been recovering from a nasty pneumonia on the other side of the hospital, but a short walk turned him from patient to healer.  Smisters may not know that it’s 2015 or who the President is, but he knew he was ready for a walk that afternoon as he made his way toward the surgical wing.

The surgical residents, with their patient prepped and draped for the surgery, were patiently waiting for the attending surgeon when Smisters walked in.  No one recognized him, but his calm, regal bearing and silver hair told everyone they were in the presence of a master.  The scrub tech asked who he was, and from the proud way he announced “Don Smisters” no one could question his authority.  His watchful eye carried the residents so gently and smoothly through the entire case that no one would have guessed that this retired landscaper from Grand Forks, ND, had never been in an operating room in his life.

Immediately after the surgery, his residents raved about the experience of operating with Mr. Smisters.

“It was amazing.  He challenged me with so many questions during the surgery…like about why we do things this way or that way,” said Intern Heather Nitchworn, “I could answer some of the questions, but he made me realize that I have a lot to learn. He never criticized me for what I didn’t know, but I’ve got a lot of reading to do tonight.”

“He had this really laid back way about him,” said fourth-year resident, John Turringtin.  “It made me feel safe.  He didn’t jump in if I stumbled, but I knew he was right there if anything went wrong; he really allowed me a lot of independence”

“Early in the case, I dropped one of the instruments. Some surgeons might have yelled at me, but he just winked and chuckled. I’ve never felt so supported.”

The surgery went smashingly and patient Kristeen Howers is back on her feet today after a short recovery.  When she found out that Smisters was the mind behind last week’s repair of her ventral hernia, she too expressed her awe.

“The scar looks really good, and my pain’s almost gone.”

The hospital’s risk management department has categorized this mishap as a “near miss” since no one was harmed as a result of the mistake. Smisters has since returned to his home at the Sunny Corral assisted living.  While he does not remember last week’s excursion into the world of surgical education, the budding surgeons he touched will never forget it.


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