Follow Through is the Difference

Stowell drives life balance through outdoor pursuits

Medical Matters, Lane County Medical Society

It’s a quiet Wednesday afternoon, and the typical noises of a private practice have died down—the phones are silent, the paper shredder has been switched off, and the staff has gone home for the day. Dr. Erik Stowell, a tall man of 6’4” with a short haircut and a touch of gray in his goatee, stands in his office, slowly turning a vintage football over in his hands. It is signed by the entire 1975 University of Oregon football team. The ball typically rests on top of the bookshelf in his office; he walks by it every time he goes to sit at his desk.

“I remember it well,” Stowell says of the day John Reed, a defensive lineman for the UO, came with a few of his teammates to visit a 15-year-old Stowell in the hospital. The injury that put him there is a hazy memory now. Stowell was a freshman in high school, playing football as a linebacker when he took a hard hit that left him with cervical spine fractures on two levels. In a moment, he went from being a three-sport athlete to being in the ICU. After major surgery, there was six months of bracing, followed by another six months of rehab and recovery. “Football was gone for good,” he said.

Knowing what I know now,” Stowell says. “I was probably one more hit away from being a C5 quadriplegic.

“Knowing what I know now,” Stowell says. “I was probably one more hit away from being a C5 quadriplegic.”

Stowell did return to the other two sports he played—baseball and basketball—making the varsity team in both. He briefly considered playing college baseball, but the hopes of it leading to the Major Leagues had been significantly impacted by his injury.

According to Stowell, the injury changed everything, and set him down the path that he walks today as a physician. It was Dr. James Degge and Dr. John Serbu’s care that left a lasting impression on him. “Everything that I saw with the physicians, the procedures, and the hospital,” Stowell says, “I think it left me with the desire to help people similarly to how those providers had helped me.”

“It’s ironic,” he says, about the specialty he has chosen, “with physical medicine and rehab, a lot of what we do is care for patients just like me. I’ve had hundreds, if not thousands of spine-injured patients in my career.”

On days when the work mounts, and his motivation wanes, Stowell walks past that signed football, and is reminded, not only of why he is in the profession, but of how close he came to a radically different life. “I was so close to being in a wheelchair for life.”

 

Maintaining a Balance

“I think as physicians we need balance—things that distract us from what we do,” Stowell says. “I think physician burn out is at an all time high, and job satisfaction is probably at an all time low. It’s important to find things that rejuvenate you physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally.”

He can attest to witnessing friends and colleagues reaching their breaking point, and has even encountered it himself, though, not to the degree where he has considered a career change. “We deal with chronic, disabling diseases, with people that are patients for life, and there is no cure for what they have.”

 

Fulfillment through Hobbies

The responsibility of being a caregiver mounts with time. To mediate this, Stowell enjoys golfing—one of several outdoor hobbies he juggles in his free time. He considers it to be one of his newer hobbies. He’s only been playing for about 20 years, compared to fly fishing and photography, both of which he has practiced since he was a child.

“I’ve certainly taken my problems out on the golf course. Usually, I don’t play as well when I do that,” Stowell says. “When I’m playing my best I’m just relaxed, and focused on that next shot.”

“There have been times where I’ve had an epiphany coming off the course,” Stowell remarks. “But more often it’s the opposite—I’m trying to clear my mind of all of that before I play, and focus just on playing.”

Stowell’s best friend, Randy Siltanen, a life-long golfer, was the first person to convince Stowell to pick up a driver. The two made a point to reunite at least annually for a skiing or fishing trip, until one year Siltanen was able to convince Stowell to join him on the golf course. Given Stowell’s competitive nature, learning a new sport by the side of an already proficient golfer was, as Stowell puts it, “a humbling experience.”

“I played baseball all through my youth. I have fought that baseball swing even to this day—that high slice,” Stowell says about how the biomechanics of one sport conflict with the other.

Given Stowell’s competitive nature, learning a new sport by the side of an already proficient golfer was, as Stowell puts it, ‘a humbling experience.’

“I caught onto the short game really quickly, and I think it was all the years of fly fishing that helped—very targeted, and touch-oriented, having good distance perception,” Stowell says. “It was the long game that held me back.”

However, Stowell is a determined athlete. Through coaching and practicing he has become a capable golfer, winning the Lane County Medical Society Golf Tournament last year. The silver trophy sits in his office next to his signed football. On the adjacent wall hang four hole-in-one plaques with his most recent from May, 2016.

“Randy was with me for the first one. We were playing together in Boise,” Stowell says. “He saw it go in the hole and I didn’t because that was the last place I was looking—that’s how new to golf I was.” Ironically, Stowell accomplished his first hole-in-one before Siltanen. He then went on to get two more before his friend could do the same.

When he’s not out on the green, Stowell can be found knee-deep in water. “I grew up fly fishing the Willamette, the McKenzie, Salt Creek, Salmon Creek—all these little streams around here,” Stowell says. Raised in Pleasant Hill, his father taught him how to fish. It’s something he has practiced his entire life, and has even enjoyed teaching to his two children, Christopher and Laura.

“When I was at the University of Oregon for my undergrad, the trout fishing right through town was pretty good,” Stowell recalls. “Occasionally, I’d skip class with a buddy, and we’d fish right above Alton Baker—just walk across the bike path and there were some nice rainbow trout in there back in the day.”

In this unique instance, Stowell is able to leave his competitive nature on the shore, and enjoy the practice of fishing. He finds joy in catching and releasing fish, as well as in the patience that is required for the days when nothing bites. “It’s nice to have a local stream, where ten or 15 minutes after work I can be on the water with a spey rod and go after steelhead for an hour.”

 

Finding Perspective:

At the end of the day, Stowell feels fortunate to specialize in rehabilitation medicine. He is able to help patients through rehab the same way he was helped as a teenager, yet his practice allows for enough flexibility that he can enjoy his various passions.

“My philosophy is: you’ve got to live life as you go,” Stowell says. “You can’t save it all up for retirement. I’ve seen it so many times with colleagues and patients who have done that: their health will go south, and they’re not able to enjoy all the things they worked so hard for.”

“It’s a balance between my faith, family, friends, work, and fun. It’s kind of a constant juggling act, but trying to keep it in balance has been really important to me,” Stowell says. “I think it will extend my career in medicine. I don’t think I’ll be at the end of my professional road in a few years when I reach my 60s. I still feel like I have something more to give.”

True to this statement, leaning against the wall in front of the desk in his office are a pair of putters, five golf balls, and a putting cup.