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Published on January 05, 2014

Lawhorn’s Lawrence: A moment with a surgeon

By Chad Lawhorn, LJWorld reporter

January 5, 2014

Read the Journal-World story 

Dr. Mark Praeger has been a physician in Lawrence for more than 35 years. He retired last week.

Photo by Richard Gwin

Dr. Mark Praeger has been a physician in Lawrence for more than 35 years. He retired last week.

For the love of trout, give the man a moment.

Dr. Mark Praeger hasn't tied a good Bead Head Pheasant Tail for years. Every time Praeger even thinks about using his magnificent hands to mess with some thread and a little Peacock leg — it is a fly-fishing term, before you go off half-cocked — you interrupt him.

A phone call, a page, a tap on the shoulder: That's been Praeger's Lawrence life. He's a surgeon, which means one minute he has his hands all over a Woolly Bugger — again, fly-fishing — and the next he has his hands in a man's chest. (Yes, he washed them.)

Praeger began serving as a Lawrence surgeon in 1977, back in the days when doctors all over the city would get a call at any hour from the hospital's emergency department to deal with everything from a broken arm to a heart attack. Back then, there weren't doctors assigned full-time to the emergency room — only nurses who had the phone numbers of every doctor in the city.

That arrangement has changed, but the life of a surgeon still is ruled by the phone call from the hospital that always comes. It is just a matter of when. And when it does, you stop what you're doing and rush to the hospital. If it is a simple emergency appendectomy, you tell your spouse you'll maybe return home in about three hours. A bad intestine? Better put the dinner in the fridge.

Dinners will be a little warmer now for Praeger, who officially retired from practice last week. Time with his Woolly Buggers and other fly-fishing gizmos can be done without a cell phone by his side.

"Surgeons are expected to fix things immediately," Praeger says. "The immediacy of it is part of the attraction, at least when you are young. The immediacy of it becomes a little more tedious when you aren't as young. But I've never resented it because it is just so stimulating."

Still, a moment every now and then will be nice.

•••

Not that there haven't been moments over more than 40 years in medicine. (Before coming to Lawrence, Praeger served a stint as an Army doctor after graduating medical school in 1968.)

The first one came on a piano bench. Praeger's grandfather had been a horse-and-buggy doctor in Western Kansas, and Praeger's uncle had become a physician too. It was his uncle's piano bench.

"He sat me down on it and asked me what I was going to do," Praeger recalls of his junior year in high school in Claflin, Kan. "I said I thought I would teach and coach. He said, 'no, you're going to medical school.' He said I had the qualities to be a good doctor. I had no idea what he was talking about, but it got me thinking."

A second moment came standing over an operating table while in his fifth year of residency at a Denver military hospital. That's when he knew he was going to be a surgeon. Sure, he already had gone through four years of the training, but it isn't the training that makes you a surgeon, nor even a fancy piece of paper.

"One thing I don't like about some surgeons is the arrogance," Praeger says. "But like a world class athlete, you understand that to be really good at something, it requires a lot of confidence."

Praeger still remembers when he got his. It was an emergency surgery for a ruptured aneurysm, and it was the first time he had performed such a major surgery without a more senior physician by his side. Praeger says he remembers it all vividly, including the dominant emotion that hung over the table.

"I was scared to death," Praeger says. "You're just hoping you can get this under control, and quickly. But when we were done, I remember I finally said I'm ready. I'm ready to go out and be a surgeon."

And there have been moments in Lawrence, too. There are probably hundreds of you who have been on his table who might not want to know all the details. Praeger performed a little more than 300 surgeries most years, and estimated about 70 of them per year were of the emergency variety.

If you have been through one of those emergency surgeries, I guess we can tell you this now: Chances are there was an "what the heck?" moment at some point during the procedure.

"It happens all the time where we see something in the operating room that we haven't seen before," Praeger says. "You think 'what am I going to do now?'"

I told you that you really didn't want to know this.

"That's the thing about surgery. It is not like a cookbook where you just follow the steps and mix the ingredients. You're there to solve problems."

Surely, leaving that stress behind must be one of the great joys of retirement. Surely, that thinking is one of the several reasons we're not surgeons.

"It is a complicated business, but it is a lot of fun," Praeger says. "When you are confident enough to deal with these things, it becomes really fun. I'm going to miss the problem solving."

•••

This is the first day of Praeger's retirement that he's staying home while his wife, Sandy Praeger, is heading off to work. Sandy, who is in the final year of her final term as Kansas Insurance Commissioner, makes it clear that no gloating will be allowed, nor loafing either.

"I've left you a grocery list," Sandy says as she walks out the door. "Call, if you have questions."

See, there are still problems to solve in retirement.

Praeger says he's happy to solve them. He says he's leaving his practice, which had been purchased by Lawrence Memorial Hospital, on his terms and at his own time. But he confesses that some of the new technology helped him reach his decision. Many surgeries are now done with robotic devices controlled by surgeons with video monitors and joysticks. Praeger, 71, notes he's never played a video game in his life.

"I'm getting replaced by someone with joystick experience," he says.

He laughs about that, and praises the new doctors who are taking his place.

"I have done enough, and I feel good about it," Praeger says.

If that feeling ever subsides, there is a box that Praeger can easily consult. Praeger says he has kept every card and letter that patients or family members have ever sent him. It's the type of box to have because about 99 percent of the letters are positive, he says. When you have saved someone's life, they tend to be that way.

"It is just very gratifying," Praeger said of those acknowledgments. "There is just really no other way to describe it."

But there are plenty of times and places for people to offer the comments. Maybe it won't happen on this grocery trip Praeger is about to take, but it will happen on one of them. Or at the gas station, or at a ballgame, or maybe even in mid-cast at an area lake. Someone will come up, and Praeger again will stop what he's doing. They'll say thank you for their life or for the life of someone they love.

Yes, another interruption. But quite a moment.

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