BEAM COLUMN: The doctor who makes and mends


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Aug 10, 2023

BEAM COLUMN: The doctor who makes and mends

Amanda Beam When you enter Dr. Donn Chatham’s New Albany office, you notice a bin of walking sticks lurking near the door to his inner sanctum of care. Now and again, Dr. Chatham searches for long

Amanda Beam

When you enter Dr. Donn Chatham’s New Albany office, you notice a bin of walking sticks lurking near the door to his inner sanctum of care.

Now and again, Dr. Chatham searches for long switches of fallen wood from the Mt. Saint Francis Center for Spirituality’s trails, and transforms them. He sells his carved walking sticks to patients for a reasonable fee and donates the proceeds to the above-mentioned center to help with their funding needs, a circular repository of conservation and goodwill.

But not only does the good doctor make, he also mends.

Much to my dismay, the area just to the side of my lips doesn’t have the stiffness of wood. It’s soft and supple and easily torn. So, when a neighbor’s Belgian Malinois bounded toward me as I walked on a late June day more than three years ago, his bite, meant for a more life-threatening neck area, made quick work of the flappable tissue. The tear extended from my lower lip, up into a modified Joker snarl, the wound open and gnarly.

At least that’s what those who viewed the mess told me. Some things in life you shouldn’t see, and to this day I haven’t set eyes on that fresh disfigurement. It took days for me peek under the bandage after the many, many stitches. The white gauze hid a reality I wasn’t ready to take on.

But that night of the initial attack, the emergency doc who tended to me at the local ER knew the repair needed a particular set of skills. With Liam Neeson not available, the attending physician phoned the on-call plastic surgeon.

I wish I could say I remembered Dr. Chatham when he walked through the hospital room door. I assume a halo circled his head, and trumpets blared, and he somehow folded his white wings down the back of his dress shirt. But I was on pain meds, and not feeling particularly attentive, and so he very well could have humbly introduced himself and went to work.

Much like my weekends of college and time spent in the Kroger checkout lane, I don’t remember much of what happened next. My husband said Dr. Chatham devoted more than two hours to lightly, kindly sewing back together the loose pieces of my face. Calming my fears, he told me all the tissue was still attached, adding that’s a good sign when reconstructing a lip. And, when doubting the stitches he placed, he’d gently remove them and start that section over again, a skilled and attentive seamstress of human flesh.

Dr. Chatham, quite simply, put me back together.

In our lives, luck takes too much credit for fortunate outcomes. To say I was lucky to have Dr. Chatham tend to me in the ER that late Friday night is to discount the sacrifices the doctor makes for his patients. This surgeon is luck personified. And without him, the scar I now- and will forever- bear from the incident would be grossly more severe.

I’ve gone to Dr. Chatham for additional procedures. Healing takes time, he said during each visit. The stiffness from scarring will lessen. The feeling in the area may return.

But I was healing well. He reminded me of this, each and every appointment.

And then, in between the times the filler was injected or the extra skin on the lip trimmed away, we talked about our families and hobbies and even some politics. On one occasion, he donated two big boxes full of art supplies for a painting project I was leading at our local jail, an artist supporting art. A rescuer still rescuing.

On a most recent office visit, he was offering something he again made with contributions going to the people of Ukraine.

We associate plastic surgeons with accentuating attractiveness, and Dr. Chatham does this. But the beauty he brings to so many goes more than skin deep. He changes the world, and assists those in it, with openness and grace.

And like those walking sticks he sculpts, our doctor continues to support those who need a little extra help getting through the rocky roads of life.

For this, I am thankful.

Amanda Beam is a Southern Indiana resident and writer.

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