By Arthur Hirsch, The Baltimore Sun
5:00 AM EDT, August 23, 2013
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.
His administrative assistant, Alyce Farrar, has been keeping the practice going in Houk's absence, scheduling patients for a substitute doctor one day a week at the York Road office or at the offices of other physicians who agreed to cover for him.
"A lot of patients don't want to see the doctors he has for them," she said. "A lot of them are pretty adamant about just waiting" until Houk gets back, if their health allows.
Since the accident, Houk has had six surgeries, spent two weeks at Shock Trauma and six weeks at the University of Maryland Rehabilitation and Orthopaedic Institute — formerly known as Kernan Hospital — where he still goes for therapy twice a week.
At the moment, he's as worried about medical bills and household expenses as anyone who runs their own small business, has been unable to work for six months and has a family. Houk and his wife have three sons and a daughter between 15 and 23 years old.
Some years ago he switched to a high-deductible insurance plan to save money on premiums, Jenkins said.
"We are not wealthy," Jenkins said in an email. "And like any other small business, an accident like this puts us on the brink of financial devastation."
Their home on two acres in the historic section of Lutherville is modestly furnished. Jenkins said the flora in the yard is not as tidy as it might be if they had not been preoccupied with Houk's recovery, and if he were going full strength.
He is going, though.
On his feet now about five hours in the day, he makes coffee, cleans out the dishwasher, cuts up fruit and vegetables for his blender drinks. He's graduated from a walker and goes unassisted in the house, using a cane for his daily walks outside a couple times a day — always with a companion.
Houk is working on recovering his strength, manual dexterity and speech; there's still some numbness in his tongue. Therapy sessions take hours, as they include three projects: 45 minutes each of physical, occupational and speech therapy. His cognitive abilities, including retention of his medical knowledge, have checked out in several tests.
On occasion, he doesn't remember a word, and Jenkins said his voice sometimes sounds younger than it did before the accident. Nonetheless, the rather eccentric, talkative Ted Houk people knew is there.
"He's almost to where he was before the accident," said Charles Armstrong, a lifelong friend who lives in New York and has visited Houk several times since March. "It's practically a miracle, considering how serious the accident was."
Jenkins said doctors have told her that it probably helped that he was in such good shape, with his regimen of exercise and diet. He still eats raw oats for breakfast — just milk, no cooking.
Houk's doctors have said it's possible he could be back to his medical practice by January.
Orthopedist Christina L. Boulton, who has been treating Houk since the accident, said he was doing better than anyone would have expected, given the seriousness of the injuries. She could not say for certain that he could one day return to running.
"If anybody's going to get back to running, he's the kind of guy who's going to be able to do it," she said.
Jenkins said she's aware of not rushing things or getting her expectations too high.
"One of the things they tell you is nobody's path after something like this is a straight path," said Jenkins, who met Houk when they were students at Towson High. They married in 1985.
She's always known him to be upbeat and determined, but during the long stay at the rehabilitation hospital, she said Houk told her "he was afraid he would never be able to come back home. It was the first time in all the years we have been together that I have ever known him to be afraid."
He did come home, at the end of May. This month, neighbors within earshot of his house who did not know he was home learned the news from a familiar sound coming from the front porch: Houk on his Great Highland Bagpipe, playing for the first time since the accident.
"I played 'Scotland the Brave' just fine for 15 minutes," said Houk, although, he added, his finger work is a little rusty. "I'm not as fast as I was. I have to practice."
He thinks about getting back to running, although Jenkins said they'll have to discuss his route and perhaps find one that has sidewalks the whole way.
In his running days, he could do nine miles if he was commuting on foot both to and from work, and depending on whether he had to stop at GBMC. People along the way would sometimes shout wisecracks at him, telling him to put a shirt on.
"They thought I was crazy," Houk said. "I know that exercise makes me happy. I know that living a long time is better."
Copyright © 2013, The Baltimore Sun