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Doctor struggles to see his father as patient

The Brunton family has a lot to smile about this Thanksgiving. From left are Robin and Dr. Lance Brunton of Latrobe, with Lance’s mother, Sandy, and his father, Mike Brunton of Uniontown. Submitted NOV 2012

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Special time for Dr. Brunton

This Thanksgiving holiday is extraordinary for the entire Brunton family, but October was an extra-special month as well for Dr. Lance Brunton. Not only has his father, Mike Brunton of Uniontown, made a miraculous recovery this past year, Dr. Brunton began a new career with Excela Health Orthopedics.

He now practices hand, wrist and elbow surgery at Excela Square in Norwin (North Huntingdon). Also, his wife, Robin, presented him with a son on Oct. 17 – the couple's fifth child of their nine-year marriage.

In September, Laurel Highlands School District presented Dr. Brunton, 36, with a Lifetime Achievement Award. He was valedictorian of LH's Class of 1994.

After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, with an undergraduate degree in biochemistry, Dr. Brunton spent a year as a volunteer with Americorps. Among his duties were assisting hurricane victims in Puerto Rico, building a camp for underprivileged kids in Kentucky and tutoring children in North Carolina.

Dr. Brunton earned his medical degree at Pitt University and completed his residency at the University of Virginia, specializing in orthopedic surgery. He also had a fellowship at Curtis National Hand Center in Baltimore and trained in pediatrics at Children's Hospital in Philadelphia.

Always a sports enthusiast, Dr. Brunton serves as a hand consultant for several local college and high school athletic teams.

He and his wife, Robin, reside in Latrobe with their five children: Cole, 6; Stone, 5; 2-year-old twins Vivia and Steele; and baby Ridge.

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By Laura Szepesi
Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2012, 1:06 a.m.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The memories of his father's accident evoke so much emotion in Dr. Lance Brunton that he was unable to communicate verbally about the accident. He agreed to answer questions via email. The following story is his personal experience of that traumatic experience as retold to freelance writer Laura Szepesi.

“My dad took extraordinary steps to survive in the minutes following his accident. I believe that many people facing the same circumstances while alone would panic and succumb to what happened,” Dr. Lance Brunton noted.

He explained that the day's cold temperature helped to preserve the amputated tissue longer than typical and allowed blood to be diverted away from his father's extremities — and toward his brain and vital organs.

“Nothing prepares you during training for this type of circumstance. When you see your own father lying in the trauma bay with such a severe injury, it is exceedingly difficult to see him as a patient,” Dr. Brunton said. “As much as I might have been capable, I needed others to take care of him so I could be his son.”

Luckily, Dr. Brunton's senior partners and other UPMC staff were on hand to handle the surgery, which lasted seven hours.

“I will never forget how polite Dad was to every person on the medical staff,” Dr. Brunton said, noting that injuries typically bring out the worst in people.

Seeing pink color returning to his dad's hand was a relief, he added, but that was nothing compared to speaking to his father after the breathing tube was removed following surgery. “I realized that his brain endured the surgery and he was still my dad. He remembered everything that had happened before the surgery. It wasn't long before he was trying to figure out who was going to finish my aunt's (Charlotte Saylor's) kitchen.”

Most importantly, Dr. Brunton added, his dad wanted his mom, Sandy Brunton, to know that he was all right. “And so did I.”

Dr. Brunton has seen his dad defy the odds many times.

“He never showed fear standing on the top rung of ladders painting peaks of our house. I'm sure he used power saws thousands of times prior to his accident.”

There is no one in the world who he wants to emulate more than his dad.

“He leads by example. He has never boasted about doing things for others. It's a way of life. He leads by example,” Dr. Brunton said. “I see his injury as unfair. But his positive attitude and drive to overcome his disability is something you can't teach. In my working life, many patients give up over far less serious injuries.”

Dr. Brunton said his father's recovery is extraordinary. “He and I both believe he will continue to improve. Seeing him hold my children is something I wasn't sure I'd see again, but I doubt he thought the same.”

While his father was in surgery, one of Dr. Brunton's partners asked him if he was close to his father.

“I said, ‘He's my best friend,'” Dr. Brunton remembered, noting that the accident has brought them even closer. ‘We are inextricably linked by life, philosophy, sports, politics, religion and such, but he never before ... had seen what it is that I do. He entered a window into the profession I chose.”

Father and son were — like his father's hand — reconnected, but in a new way.

“It was a hell of a way to do so — and one that I would ask him to please not duplicate,” Dr. Brunton said.

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