Seven years ago, Courtland Keteyian rolled into an operating room, excited by the prospect of running the way he once did as a star athlete on the track team in college. He imagined running on an outdoor trail and alongside gurneys in an emergency room.
Post-surgery, a few hours later, nurses wheeled him out of the operating room. He has been in a wheelchair ever since.
His surgeon made the operation sound fairly routine. A first-year resident at the time, studying emergency medicine, Keteyian was aware of the litany of things that can go wrong on the operating table. But he went in with confidence and assurances that the risks of the operation were minimal. He felt certain that his bothersome running injury would finally be healed.
But after this surgery, he could not even walk.
Finding meaning in work
Keteyian admits that dealing with the complications of his surgery was not easy. But instead of turning away from medicine, his desire to become a doctor grew stronger. He decided he wanted to become a different kind of doctor — one focused on prevention and who avoids unnecessary medical interventions as much as possible.
He finished his internship in emergency medicine and went on to complete his residency in preventive medicine at the University of Michigan. Today, he is an occupational and environmental medicine fellow at the Colorado School of Public Health (ColoradoSPH) on the CU Anschutz Medical Campus.
With BS, MD, MBA, and MPH degrees, experience as the CEO of his own startup company, and time spent as the medical director of a county health department under his belt, Keteyian brings a unique set of skills to the fellowship. He is the first fellow to matriculate into the program, one of the only one-year fellowships in the country that offers a path for physicians to become board certified in occupational medicine. The program was designed by faculty in the ColoradoSPH’s Center for Health, Work & Environment and is funded by the center’s Mountain & Plains Education and Research Center and an educational grant from Pinnacol Assurance, the largest workers’ compensation insurer in Colorado.
“I take a lot of pride in going to work each day. I think most people do. I wanted to work with people who experience disability and help them be functional at work so they can continue to experience that sense of value,” said Keteyian.
While his current career path is not exactly what he would have imagined as an intern at the University of Michigan, he has found purpose. Specializing in occupational medicine has offered him the opportunity to help others overcome their health challenges, get back to work, and hopefully regain the sense of identity that their job symbolizes.
The fact that he was able to customize the program to fit his career goals, focus on his interest in prevention, and gain hands-on training in a clinical setting was a major draw of the fellowship.
When he is not treating patients, Keteyian is conducting research that will help prevent injuries and illnesses from occurring in the first place. Currently, he is investigating what factors cause repeat job-related injuries by analyzing workers’ compensation claims. He and his co-investigators in the Center for Heath, Work & Environment envision using the findings of this work to help employers and employees prevent repeat injuries, a topic that has not been studied extensively in the past.
“Seeing patients is important work, but it’s impact is mainly limited to the present,” said Keteyian. “It is critically important to understand why workers experience injuries and what can be done to prevent them. Research is essential to answer this question, and has the potential to improve health outcomes for workers long into the future.”
Connecting with patients who experience disability
Keteyian’s experiences as a frustrated patient and as a physician with a disability have informed both his research focus on prevention as well as his interactions with patients.
“Regardless of who the patient is, I think just seeing someone in a wheelchair can be very disarming for patients,” he said. “It can create a bridge that wasn’t there before. They think, ‘This guy gets it. He’s had some sort of challenge.’”
After years of hard work, Keteyian is now able to walk to some extent. But most of his time is spent in a wheelchair. The way Keteyian sees it, everyone will cope with disability in their lifetime in some way. Our ability to do everyday activities, on the job or at home, may change over time. Keteyian often conveys to patients that they are not alone in facing challenges and that they can still contribute to society, even if they need to adjust their work tasks or lifestyle to accommodate an illness or injury.
“Just because you have an injury or a disability doesn’t mean you can’t be very productive in other ways,” said Keteyian. “I treat patients and do research to contribute in ways that I feel are meaningful to society.”
The combination of Keteyian’s background in emergency medicine and his own personal health journey has led him down a career path focused on prevention and helping workers. He looks forward to continuing to build on his clinical and research expertise to move prevention-first approaches forward in the field of occupational and environmental medicine.