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Spring 2014
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Larger Than Life
Renowned orthopaedic surgeon is also a mentor, down to his bones.
The results of a physician’s work are spelled out in absolute terms, in the body and blood of another, and indirectly, in all the ways that good health reverberates. But for a special kind of physician, the impact extends beyond individual healing: their work shapes their colleagues and mentees, their community, their field. One such physician is Michael G. Ehrlich. A specialist in pediatric orthopaedic surgery, he has been a practicing clinician for almost half a century, and at Brown for 20 years.

Ehrlich is first and foremost a caregiver. Recognized nationally for his work with disabled children and expert handling of difficult diagnostic and therapeutic problems, he is one of the nation’s leading experts in clubfoot surgery and pioneers of the Ilizarov leg-lengthening procedure. Over the decades, he has helped hundreds of children walk for the first time. At Brown, Ehrlich works tirelessly to design and perform groundbreaking treatments: in 2003, he succeeded in growing bone alongside cartilage in a first-of-its kind procedure on a 9-year-old boy born without a fibula.

Underlying Ehrlich’s clinical successes is a fundamental philosophy. “He believes strongly in the importance of treating patients as people rather than body parts or technical exercises,” says Christopher W. DiGiovanni, one of Ehrlich’s former residents and chief of Brown’s Foot and Ankle Service and director of its orthopaedic residency program. “He taught me that our job is quite simply to get our patients as close to the outcomes they—and we—dream of. But he has always been quick to remind us that we are all patients.”

This awareness of the universality of vulnerability—the deep appreciation that no one, in the end, is spared the experience of feeling powerless against the larger forces of one’s own body—is perhaps part of the reason Ehrlich connects so easily with his patients. Ehrlich, who in recent years has needed several orthopaedic surgeries himself, offers his patients not only the promise of advanced medical treatment, but kind words—and, often, jokes. Brent Lang ’04 was one such patient. Born severely flat-footed, Lang needed several complicated surgeries to stop the progression of his arthritis and to enable him to move without difficulty.

“Growing up I was very sensitive about the way I walked,” says Lang. “I was mocked and bullied.” Ehrlich discussed the surgeries thoroughly with Lang’s family, answered their questions, and kept them smiling. “He would always ask if I was ready for my ‘brain surgery’,” says Lang. Because of the surgeries, Lang—now a successful journalist in Los Angeles—walks and even runs without pain. “Dr. Ehrlich changed my life immeasurably,” he says.

Although Ehrlich has a certain ease with his patients and possesses what colleagues describe as a “rare genius,” his accomplishments certainly didn’t come without sacrifice and toil. A fan of the maxim “suffering builds character,” “he makes it difficult for others to complain, as he generally works harder than everyone else,” says a former resident, David Asprinio, now chairman and program director of the Department of Orthopaedics at New York Medical College. “Not that they won’t,” Asprinio adds.

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