Theodore C. Houk, known as Baltimore County's running doctor, is on the road again — only slower, on a shorter leash. He walks a half-mile or so at a time now, stepping with a cane, a metal frame on his right leg, working back to the conspicuously active life he led before he was struck by a car six months ago in mid-stride.
The bare-chested man with a flying ponytail who became a local celebrity as he ran about five miles to and from work is a memory. These days Houk walks with a shirt on, always with a companion, a few blocks around his home in Lutherville.
Patience, he tells himself.
"Intellectually and emotionally, I know I have to be patient," said Houk, noting he's had that same conversation many times with people he cares for in his solo primary-care practice. Doctors, he acknowledged, often make difficult patients.
Houk, 50, sat in his living room in a big stuffed armchair with his right leg on two pillows atop an ottoman. That leg took the first blow shortly after 8 a.m. March 28, crunched below the knee by the right front bumper of a Toyota SUV. The top of his head hit the windshield and his scalp was cut. His brain bled from the force of the blow.
He landed on North Charles Street, shirtless as usual, in shorts and running shoes, his black bag — containing his stethoscope, cell phone, scrubs and tomato and celery for his all-vegetable lunch — thrown nearby.
People who'd seen him running there so many times before drove by the awful scene and realized the running doctor was down. He was flown to Maryland Shock Trauma Center and remained there two weeks, all but one day in the intensive care unit.
Houk never lost consciousness during the ordeal, but of the accident and the hours after, he remembers "absolutely nothing."
Baltimore County Police did not charge the driver of the Toyota in the accident, which they attributed to Houk's straying in front of the car. They were not able to find out exactly how or why it happened.
Houk fractured his left hip socket, right collarbone and the right side of his nose. His right leg was shattered just below the knee. A Taylor Spatial Frame holds the right tibia straight now, but he's hoping the contraption will be removed by the end of September.
The bleeding in the brain stopped shortly after the accident. Still, his wife, Pamela Jenkins, said in those first weeks she would brace herself for hospital visits by going into the woods near their house to pray.
"People aren't in Shock Trauma ICU if they're not in really bad shape," Jenkins said. "There's always that chance" they won't make it.
Jenkins was composed when she talked recently about seeing her husband after the accident, bloodied and swollen. But when she spoke about all the help and encouragement that has sustained them to this day, she broke into tears.
"It's a little difficult and strange to be on the receiving side" when you're used to "helping rather than being in need of help," said Jenkins, Houk's medical office manager. "Our friends and family have just been incredibly supportive. … There's a reason we live in communities."
Some volunteered to mow the lawn, walk the dog or take care of the family's 20 backyard chickens. Some brought food and cooked meals. Eleven medical doctors stepped up to take care of Houk's patients. One friend set up a fundraising site to help with expenses.
Houk has been practicing medicine for more than 20 years, but he's no Lexus-driving specialist. Picture a gentle man with a brown ponytail driving a 2006 KIA van who says he decided to be a doctor when he was 17, around the time he graduated from Towson High School and was bound for the Johns Hopkins University.
"I realized I could help many people," said Houk, who comes from a family of doctors and scientists. "That was wonderful."
He's always had his own practice, giving him freedom to spend more time with patients and to resist the pressure to make more money — and to run to work with no shirt on, as long as the temperature was above 27 degrees.
"He never went into it for the sake of making money," said Jennifer Horvath, who met Houk and Jenkins when Houk was in medical school at the University of Washington. In May she launched the fundraising site, which as of this week had collected $6,801.
Houk is the only doctor in his office on York Road, which he runs with his wife and one administrative assistant. While he has privileges at Greater Baltimore Medical Center and St. Joseph Medical Center, he's not an employee of either hospital.