This Isn’t Tough Sledding Dr. Loren Roberts Has Enjoyed His Lengthy Run as a General Surgeon

Dr. Loren Roberts was 12 when he suffered the sledding mishap, but he recalls the details as if it occurred yesterday.It happened on a steep hill in Coventry, R.I. — the town in which he grew up — so steep, in fact, he recalled, that the older boys in the neighborhood would spread sand on it to slow it down. But, exuding confidence and a youthful sense of invulnerability, Roberts ventured out one day before such sanding could take place. And paid the price.

On his third run, he lost control, fell off, and the Red Flyer came down hard on top of him, rupturing his liver.

“I spent about a week in the ICU and a month in the hospital … I lost a lot of weight,” he said in a decidedly serious tone before switching to what amounted to deadpan humor. “There’s a lot of people who will say it was that experience in the hospital and that time with doctors and nurses that prompted me to go into medicine, but I think they attach much more significance to it than I do. As I recall … it was my parents telling me I couldn’t earn enough money as an artist that did it for me.”

It was always to be a choice between art — “I was going to be a sculptor” — or medicine, said Roberts, who told The Healthcare News that it was the hospital stay, his parents’ practical advice, both, or maybe neither that prompted the latter course and enrollment in Brown University and then its medical school in his home state. Today, he is a general surgeon employed by Holyoke Medical Center who finds a number of rewards from helping patients get back to their lives as quickly and painlessly as his talents and modern technology will allow.

And while he talked about that technology and how it has changed the field of surgery, he also spoke of other aspects of his work beyond the actual surgical — meaning some things that haven’t changed.

These include the dialogue with patients before and after a procedure, he explained, and the reviewing of options and the possibility of second opinions. Such talk is designed to inform, educate, and reassure patients during what is obviously an important, sometimes difficult time in their lives. But years of experience have left him wondering just whether patients are actually listening.

“No matter what you say, I don’t think they’re hearing very much,” he explained. “And that’s why it’s always better to have a family member there. This happens all the time, and it happened again today; a family member was asking questions about what amounts to a simple hernia operation, because the patient was too anxious and really couldn’t think and ask the appropriate questions.”

Learning the ins and outs of communicating with patients and their families, while also adapting to new technology, are some of many things Roberts has mastered through nearly a quarter-century as a surgeon.

After completing his undergraduate and graduate work at Brown, Roberts completed residencies in Bridgeport, Conn., Long Island, N.Y., and Allentown, Penn., and also spent three years at the Institute of Surgical Research in San Antonio, Texas, running the burn unit team and writing surgical care protocols — experiences that have helped steel him for whatever comes his way today.

“I guess now I don’t get excited when something bad happens. I’m able to remain levelheaded,” said Roberts of his 25 years of surgical practice that started in Maine, continued in Westfield and Noble Hospital, and then took him to Holyoke. On Oct. 1, Roberts opened his practice at 10 Hospital Dr., on the HMC campus.

Roberts has been performing surgery at HMC for many years and said he looks forward to increasing his presence at the hospital and being part of the team there.

“The big draw for me is working with the physicians I know and trust. It’s been a long time coming. Holyoke is a real community-based hospital. You’re personally treated there, the way it should be,” said Roberts. “The docs have a really good fund of knowledge. They’re excellent in the OR, and they’ve been very supportive of me through the years.”

Roberts sees patients for a wide range of surgical procedures, the most common of which involve hernias, gallbladders, colons, the endocrine system, and breasts.

“Breast surgery has changed significantly over the years. When I first started it was common to do mastectomies, and now it is uncommon. For select individuals, sampling the lymph nodes by performing a sentinel node biopsy is less invasive, so the patient experiences less post-op pain and a faster and safer recovery.”

Roberts said that when he finished his residency, laparoscopic surgeries were primarily done for gallbladder removal, while today this minimally invasive technology is used for many procedures involving hernias, the breasts, appendix, colon, and spleen.

Beyond the technical aspects of surgery, Roberts says he likes the people aspect of his work, and especially helping people enjoy a better quality of life. He said he likes getting to know his patients.

“Let’s face it, nobody likes to have surgery,” he said. “One of the things that’s enjoyable in the office is talking to them about things other than why they’re here.”

These conversations often work out better than the ones concerning the procedure in question, he continued, emphasizing, again, that he’s not sure how much people are hearing.

“Sometimes, I’ll have them come back and bring a family member with them if they didn’t the first time,” he said. “I had one woman who had to come back four times because there would be a certain number of questions, I’d give her answers, she’d go home and think about it, and then come back and ask more questions. Four times is unusual.”

Overall, he said the relationship between physician and patient is a special one, unique in some ways because of the level of trust involved and the technical and emotional nature of the discussions.

“People are coming to you because they want your advice — they want to know what you think about the best way to handle something,” he explained. “Quite often, when I give people the option between laparoscopic or open, they’ll say, ‘what would you do?’ They don’t want to make their own decision.”

In his free time, Roberts enjoys scuba diving, woodworking, cooking — and snowboarding.

Apparently, the sledding mishap of some 40 years ago hasn’t left him fearful of the slopes. It’s probably not what propelled him into medicine — but it did help get him started on a different, and very successful, kind of run.

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