The Doctors’ Doctors

Six Valley physicians share their stories of turning to medical colleagues in times of need
Christianna SilvaMarch 20, 2019

Photography by Tayler Brown, Mirelle Inglefield & Nicole Neri

What happens when physicians exchange their white coats for hospital gowns? We found six Valley healers who turned to colleagues in time of medical need, and let them tell their own stories.

Doctors get sick.

It’s a sobering but implacable reality for the more than 12,000 licensed physicians in the Valley, nearly all of whom will need specialized medical care at some point in their lives. The good news: As professionals who’ve devoted their careers to healing others, they have special insight and frames of reference for selecting a provider, much like a plumber who knows the best electrician to fix his fuse box, or a brake mechanic who has the inside scoop on a hotshot to rebuild her Audi engine. But having good intel is only half the battle: Ailing doctors must also mentally prepare themselves to switch roles and learn a full season of lessons, from their attitudes about self-care to how they treat their own patients.

The Anesthesiologist & his ENT

Esteban Magaña, an anesthesiologist in Phoenix, could barely speak or swallow when he finally decided to call up his friend, ENT (ear, nose and throat) specialist Jerald Altman, and ask him to operate on his throat. Magaña had undergone a cervical fusion to fix pain in his neck six months earlier by a different doctor. The procedure compressed the nerve that controls the movement of his vocal cord, leaving him out of work and in pain. “I was hoping it was going to heal itself, but it just wasn’t doing it,” Magaña says, finally deciding it was time to treat the pain with another surgery.

The decision to go back under the knife was difficult for Magaña, but choosing a doctor was easy – he knew Altman from working near him in the hospital from time to time, occasionally sharing an operating room. “He’s my buddy, and I trust him,” Magaña says of the Glendale otolaryngologist. It was a much different criteria than that used by most patients, who are increasingly more likely to find their doctors on the internet, according to a U.S. News and World Report survey.

When Magaña finally set up an appointment with Altman, he opened his mouth to explain his pain when Altman interrupted him. “Your voice sounds like shit,” Altman said.

“Yeah, I know. Fix it,” Magaña replied.

And that’s what Altman did – he joked around with his friend, knocked him out with gas and operated on his neck. Magaña was back at work two weeks later and recognizes his good fortune as a patient with special insight and access into the Valley’s medical community. “I feel [sympathy] for people who aren’t in the business, because they don’t know who they’re going to,” Magaña says. “Just like when you come to me [as a patient], you don’t know who I am, and then you have to put your life in my hands.”

Altman agrees: As a physician with a health concern, the best and easiest route to a good outcome is to simply ask your colleagues to help you pick out a doctor, and it doesn’t have to be exclusive to those in the medical community, he says. “The public has a good opportunity there, too. If you really trust your primary care doctor, [ask him] where he sends his mother. Tell me where you would go. That’s what I want from my primary care doctor… Patients can have that option and opportunity as well.”

Magaña (left) and Altman reminisce over snifters of tequila at Crujiente Tacos in Arcadia.; Photo by Nicole Neri
Magaña (left) and Altman reminisce over snifters of tequila at Crujiente Tacos in Arcadia.; Photo by Nicole Neri

The Sports Surgeon & his Cardiologist

John Kearney is in peak physical shape: Standing just under 7 feet tall, the former college basketball player and orthopedic sports medicine surgeon prioritizes his health. So he wrote off the jabs of chest pain he commonly felt during workouts. With no family history of heart problems, his risk factors were incredibly low – or so he thought.

“There was a part of my brain saying, ‘Wait a minute, you’re having exertional chest pain every single time you exercise. You would tell any of your patients to get that checked, so why aren’t you doing it?’” Kearney says. “And then the Saturday before [my wife and I] were supposed to go to Colorado and run a half marathon at altitude, we met family for a late dinner, and I had the symptoms at dinner.”

Kearney felt the same chest pressure he’d been experiencing on training runs, but this time, he was sitting still. His hands got clammy, his chest began burning and he got scared. He didn’t realize it in that moment, but later recalls: “I was having a heart attack.”

Nguyen (left) and Kearney hang out before a heart-healthy meal at True Food Kitchen in Scottsdale; Photo by Mirelle Inglefield
Nguyen (left) and Kearney hang out before a heart-healthy meal at True Food Kitchen in Scottsdale; Photo by Mirelle Inglefield

Still, he didn’t go to the hospital. He and his wife had a 10-mile training run the next morning, after all, and he didn’t want to skip it if the pain was from acid reflux, as he had assumed. “Sure enough, 200 yards into the run, I had bad chest pain. I felt nauseated. I had the classic guy running in the neighborhood who stops and it’s like…” Kearney grasps his chest. “I told my wife, ‘I got to stop. I think this is like, for real, and I need to go to the ER, but don’t call the paramedics. You know, I don’t want to make a scene.’”

When Kearney was assessed in the emergency room, most of the tests turned up normal, except one: He showed evidence of ventricular tachycardia, an abnormal heart rhythm that can lead to cardiac arrest. The cardiologist on call, multiple Top Doctors honoree Tri Nguyen, decided to take him to the operating room. That’s when Nguyen saw it: Kearney had a 99 percent blockage in his left anterior descending artery, “which we call the widow maker for a good reason,” Nguyen says.

Nguyen immediately cleared out the artery to the best of his ability using a minimally invasive procedure. He kept Kearney in the hospital overnight for observation, despite believing Kearney was doing “really well.” It’s lucky he did. The next morning, Kearney slipped into cardiac arrest.

After Kearney was defibrillated bedside, Nguyen whisked him back into the operating room to take a look. Everything was structurally fine, but his heart seized upon having full blood flow again. Kearney went home, shaken but relieved to be alive, the following day.

Three weeks later, Nguyen’s phone rang. It was a text from Kearney, accompanied by a photo of the sports medicine doctor wakeboarding with his young daughter. “That was one of the best things I could have ever gotten,” Nguyen says.

“Every time I’ve been a patient for anything, I’ve always learned something from it,” Kearney says, adding that he now listens to his body more carefully, and encourages his patients to do the same. “This one was definitely no exception. I think for me, the biggest takeaway is that the things that I think matter to me as a doctor don’t matter to me as much as a patient. From the patient’s perspective, it’s the other things that matter more: It’s being heard, it’s feeling like you can ask a question without being judged or being rushed.”

The E.R. Doc & his Oncologist

When emergency room physician Craig Norquist was diagnosed with cancer six years ago, he was at the peak of his training for ultra-marathons – races run at distances much longer than the marathon’s usual 26.2 miles. He had already logged a few and was training for another.

In the midst of his training, he found a lump in his arm, then another one on the back of his neck. Then the lumps started moving positions. He knew he needed to see an oncologist.

Norquist’s friends and colleagues recommended Michael Gordon, the founder of the Arizona Cancer Center’s Drug Development Program in Scottsdale, who biopsied his lymph nodes. The diagnosis: non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a highly survivable blood cancer (five-year survival rate: 71 percent) but a difficult disease to cure. Sometimes, chemotherapy is effective, as are stem cell treaments. Often, the prescription is simply a vigilant eye.

Gordon (left) checks on Norquist at Gordon’s Scottsdale practice.; Photo by Tayler Brown
Gordon (left) checks on Norquist at Gordon’s Scottsdale practice.; Photo by Tayler Brown

Sitting in the patient chair waiting for his results was unfamiliar territory for Norquist. Years later, he realizes that waiting for his results was the scariest part of the diagnosis. “I realized that it was the anxiety and the fear of not knowing… As a patient, that was probably the worst feeling,” Norquist says. “[Waiting] was as bad as when I first heard the biopsy results, that it was cancer.”

Norquist still lives with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and he’s been living with it for more than six years. He’s still receiving care from his colleague, but given the nature of the disease, the treatments are not aggressive. It’s a “watchful waiting” treatment process, Gordon says – he’ll biopsy lumps occasionally and pays close attention to how Norquist is feeling, but for the most part, not much has changed. Norquist is still working in the emergency room, and he’s still competing in races.

“We know this is a disease that is treatable but not necessarily curable, and therefore we focus our attention on maintaining the integrity of someone’s well-being,” Gordon says, adding that this cancer doesn’t have much of an effect on Norquist’s body or energy level. “In Craig’s case, well-being was, you know, running a hundred miles at a time.”

Two years after Norquist was diagnosed, he ran The Grand Slam of Ultrarunning – five 100-mile races across the country over 10 weeks. He took home a large eagle head statue from the race, and brought back something to his practice, too.

Norquist convinced the group of doctors in the emergency room to change the way they approach patients with test results. Now, instead of getting all of the results before returning to the patient with information, he and his colleagues give them results as they come in. Being a patient changed how Norquist approached medicine in a big way.

The Dermatologist & her Fertility Doctor

Crossing into her mid-30s and single, dermatologist Lindsay Ackerman knew she wanted to have children someday, and she wanted the biological means to do so when the time was right. So she went to fertility doctor Millie Behera – then a rising star in the Valley’s reproductive medicine community – in February 2011 and asked about inseminating her eggs and preserving them as embryos.

Shortly after Ackerman visited Behera’s office, she began a serious relationship. Her new partner, Lori Porter, was a hospitalist – and ready to have children. Porter had tried many times to get pregnant, but it never worked, likely because she was in her late 30s, and success rates for IVF drop to 11.5 percent after age 40.

“We loved the idea of building a family together, and Lori was amazing and generous and offered to carry the children and my biological embryo,” Ackerman says.

The in vitro fertilization process can be confusing and scary, but Behera and Ackerman say the couple’s mutual background in medicine helped ease a lot of the stress. “I think that there’s a lot of things that we [understood] because she’s a physician,” Behera says. “Like making decisions together did become a lot easier because there was that level of understanding.”

With non-physician couples, Behera says the initial few visits are filled with background information and frequently asked questions. In helping Ackerman and Porter, “I think we kind of skipped a lot of that.”

Nine months later, Porter gave birth to their first child, a happy baby boy. Ackerman was 34 years old, and she didn’t want another baby. “I was good with one because he’s perfect, but Lori really wanted more children,” Ackerman says.

They opted for another round of IVF soon after. Behera placed two embryos into Porter, with 40 percent chance of getting one child and a 4 percent chance of getting twins.

Porter, then 43 years old, became pregnant with twins. She vividly remembers Ackerman falling to the floor in shock and Behera laughing, eventually telling Porter, “You seem totally fine with this.”

“And I said I was and that I thought this was always supposed to be my journey,” Porter says. “Fortunately, I was blessed that pregnancy was seemingly [an] easy experience for me.”

Ackerman got more than just three perfect kiddos – she found a renewed sense of purpose in how she runs her own practice. “There’s a motivation behind the philosophy we’ve tried to build in my office, and it’s very similar to the experience that we shared when we were patients in Millie’s office – that you’re there to provide a service. You really are.

“I mean, you’ve got someone’s greatest asset, whichever it is they’re pursuing, in your hands.”

Behera (left) and Ackerman catch up at Mountain View park in Scottsdale.; Photo by Tayler Brown
Behera (left) and Ackerman catch up at Mountain View park in Scottsdale.; Photo by Tayler Brown

The hand doc & her Gender Surgeon

Ellie Zara Ley was a Tucson doctor with training in plastics and hand reconstruction when the notion of becoming a gender-reassignment surgeon first struck her.

This was before Ley, living as a man at the time, realized her true nature. “Once I was in the plastic surgery side of training, that’s when [the notion to be a gender reassignment surgeon] first came to me,” Ley says. “What I didn’t know was that not only did I want to be a gender surgeon, but I wanted a gender change myself.”

As recounted in an interview with PHOENIX in 2016, that realization finally dawned on her when she was painting the fingernails of her young daughter and playfully applied some of the polish to her own nails. The experience stirred her feminine essence, and there was no turning back. Ultimately, she reached out to Scottsdale gender surgeon Toby Meltzer, one of only a half-dozen or so reputable doctors in the United States practicing gender reassignment surgery at the time.

Unbeknownst to her, Meltzer was looking for a surgeon to join his practice. “If I’m not in a rush, I’ll sit back and I’ll start talking to [my patients] and find out a little bit more about them,” Meltzer says. “And so I asked her, ‘What do you do?’”

Ley told him she was a plastic surgeon, and he immediately recruited her. “I liked her right away,” Meltzer says.

He also medically guided her through the process of gender reassignment, which in male-to-female patients is typically achieved via a procedure called a penile inversion – essentially “turning the penis inside out,” Meltzer says, while creating an interior space “which is anatomically the exact same space as a cis female.” (A cisgender, or cis, person is someone whose biological sex matches their gender identity.) To the best of the surgeon’s ability, anatomies are redirected, and nerve function is preserved.

Ley officially joined Meltzer’s practice in 2015, and together the colleagues have weathered the changing political and social attitudes around the treatment they provide. The waiting list to see Meltzer and Ley can be months long, and they divide the labor pretty much equally – although Meltzer says he’s always around to help if needed. Despite their overflowing practice, they still hold their relationships with their patients dear.

“Things have radically changed, but the mindset of the patients hasn’t,” Meltzer says. “I think the patients that we take care of have the least sense of entitlement of anybody coming into a plastic surgeon’s office.”

Ley and Meltzer at The Scott Resort & Spa in Scottsdale; Photo by Nicole Neri
Ley and Meltzer at The Scott Resort & Spa in Scottsdale; Photo by Nicole Neri

The Plastic Surgeon & her Pediatrician

Sumer Daiza first remembers wanting to be a doctor after an appointment with her pediatrician, David Folkestad, at 3 years old. She idolized him, drew pictures of him and loved going in for her wellness checks.

“David Folkestad was definitely the inspiration. Actually, up until medical school I had planned on being a pediatrician,” Daiza says. After trying out different specialties in school, though, she was hooked on cosmetic surgery and changed course.

Daiza stopped seeing Folkestad – an iconic figure in Valley medicine who founded Camelback Pediatrics and died in 2002 – in her adolescent years. Like most girls transitioning to womanhood, she switched to a female doctor. Dr. Susan Apley, another physician at Folkestad’s practice, became her doctor. Treating Daiza through her teen years, Apley continued to inspire the young patient to go into medicine. Decades later, Daiza – a multiple Top Doctors honoree – practices what she learned as a 3-year-old in Apley’s office, giving her patients the same care and compassion she received as a child and then as a teenager from Apley and Folkestad.

“I think it just comes down to the basics,” Daiza, who is now a plastic surgeon in Scottsdale, says of what she learned from Apley and Folkestad. “Be caring and be genuine… I think it has to come from the heart, and people know that. And as a 3-year-old, you know if people are being genuine.”

Apley’s ecstatic that her care inspired someone to go into medicine. “I would like to think all [doctors] are good role models so that we might be the inspiration to be a physician,” Apley says.

Daiza (left) and Apley play around at Gainey Village Health Club and Spa; Photo by Mirelle Inglefield
Daiza (left) and Apley play around at Gainey Village Health Club and Spa; Photo by Mirelle Inglefield