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Friday, Apr 18, 2014

Hill: Pinellas surgeon works with what she has

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A few years ago, Lauren Archer’s hard-won career and life path as a plastic and reconstructive surgeon careened off track near the drawbridge on the westernmost span of the Pinellas Bayway.

An errant piece of cement turned certainty — or as much certainty as one can assume in life — into ambiguity.

Before the accident, she said: “I had everything. Life was perfect.”

But the relatively safe bet of a productive and satisfying surgical career took on ugly odds that even the most reckless gambler would hesitate to put money on.

When I met her back in September, the 46-year-old was using terms such as: “My wings have been clipped.” And “I’m trying to find the new normal.”

Archer was still trying to recover from a fall on an innocent Sunday morning ride with the St. Petersburg Bike Club that had almost amputated her left arm.

Now, almost six months later and more than three years after the accident, she has regained about all the ability she will ever have in that arm. She went from reconstructing faces horribly disfigured in an accident to what she calls “plastic surgery light.”

Response to the column I wrote about Archer following our meeting was significant. People still ask me about her. So it seemed time to do an update.

We met again recently, although she told me that there wasn’t much new to report. Turns out that wasn’t quite true.

She said she’s still working part-time at Advance Dermatology and Cosmetic Surgery’s Largo office, but her limitations mean that she no longer practices at All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg or St. Joseph’s in Tampa.

Part-time work also makes it difficult to serve regular patients.

But what is old is new again.

During medical school at the University of Vermont, Archer joined the Navy and did her surgical internship at the Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. She then went on active duty for five years as a physician.

The highlight of that duty was serving aboard the USS Constitution, aka “Old Ironsides,” the oldest commissioned warship afloat in the world.

The frigate was commissioned in 1797 and earned its nickname during the War of 1812.

Archer says, “This was my ship. It was the best year I had in the Navy serving on the oldest ship in the Navy.”

The Navy came calling again recently, and she has committed to Naval Reserve duty as the Senior Surgical Executive for the reserve component of Naval Hospital Jacksonville.

Archer will travel to Jacksonville several times a year and to the other 14 clinics in the Southeast.

“We are tasked with ensuring the medical readiness of the sailors assigned to the Southeastern U.S. As a senior medical executive, I will also mentor the more junior physicians assigned to Naval Hospital Jacksonville.

“It’s a great opportunity for professional growth.”

The duty will allow her to explore options that she would never have considered before the accident.

“This comes at a great time,” she says

Until the accident, all she wanted to do was surgery. Administrative medicine — particularly after long and grueling years of surgical training — was not on the horizon.

Now, she says: “It doesn’t look like I’m going to get back all that I want to get back. So I have to learn to work with what I have.”

Although she wants to keep her hand in surgery, the new Navy assignment is something she’s never done and is providing new challenges and opportunities to learn.

Plus, she can be called to active duty for some overseas assignments.

So it appears Archer’s life path has taken another turn — this one for the better.

With a smile, she says: “Maybe there’s a new chapter opening.”

Maybe even a new book.

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