Martin Luther King Lifetime Achievement Award Winner Dr. Eleby Washington makes a difference.
Dr. Eleby Washington’s orthopedic surgery career started with a surprise hip fracture.
Not his — a patient’s.
“It was the first day of my internship for general surgery. It was early in the morning – I hadn’t even gotten my hospital badge yet, I had no idea where I was supposed to go. Next thing I know, they’re saying, ‘What are you doing here? Aren’t you supposed to be in surgery?,’” Dr. Washington recalls.
“I had no idea I was scheduled! I ran up to the operating room as fast as I could. The chairman of the department took me through the case and allowed me to operate. I was hooked."
Dr. Washington’s passion for his life’s work hasn’t dimmed since. “Surgery is an opportunity to make someone’s life better immediately. It’s incredibly satisfying to see people who couldn’t even stand pre-surgery walk into your office recovered. That’s so positive. That’s exactly what we’re trying to accomplish.”
Dr. Washington also enjoys the variety. “In orthopedic surgery, we operate on most areas of the body. One day, you’re doing microsurgery on a person’s finger that was cut off in an accident, the next it’s doing spinal surgery on a child with scoliosis. The next it might be a hip or knee replacement.”
After many successful years in private practice, Dr. Washington made a decision that changed his life and that of countless others: he went to take care of the underserved. In addition to serving as Professor and Chairman of the Department of Surgery and Orthopedic Surgery at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science, Dr. Washington is the Lead Physician and Director Orthopedic Service at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Outpatient Center and the Director of Orthopedic Service at Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Hospital in Los Angeles.
“We take care of people with no resources. Many are indigent, some are illegal immigrants," he explains. The challenges, Dr. Washington quickly learned, can be daunting. “It’s not at all like it was when I worked in Marina del Rey. Patients are often malnourished and lack access to medications. You have to worry about homelessness, people’s inability to get transportation for follow-up doctor’s appointments, or inability to get physical therapy. You need to have much more understanding and empathy about whether patients can follow our instructions. In fact, we just published a paper about the challenges of achieving good outcomes with patients who have psychiatric diagnoses as well as orthopedic injuries.”
Those unusual challenges require a very unusual kind of doctor. “It’s hard to find doctors — especially surgeons — who will come and work in this type of environment,” Dr. Washington explains.
To solve this problem, Dr. Washington is the chairman of a program at Charles R. Drew Medical School that runs pipeline programs to train the next generation. of doctors and surgeons. “We take kids in pre-school, as young as three or four years old, and start to train them in engineering, medicine, math, and sciences. We get sixth graders interested in becoming orthopedic surgeons, kids in other grades learning about what ophthalmologists or cardiologists do. Kids shadow us in the clinics and hospitals. We need to grow the next generation of doctors and surgeons right here, in this community, because their rewards will not be monetary. They have to be unafraid of the challenges of this kind of environment.”
Dr. Washington has a family full of dedicated professionals. His father was an orthopedic surgeon, his son is a radiologist, his wife is an attorney for a nonprofit. One daughter is an attorney; the other is in research.
He played basketball in college and medical school, but had to give it up after he broke his ankle a few times. These days, Dr. Washington enjoys tennis. “I won’t say I’m great, but it’s good exercise," he says with a laugh. But his major passion is his work serving the underserved.
“You learn you have to be sensitive to more than just the surgical part of their needs," Dr. Washington observes. "A good surgeon has to have good hands, but he or she also has to have a good heart.”