Aiming for Great: Physician Grows after Experiencing Life as a Patient

July 21, 2017

Opening Address: Do Great Things
Thursday, July 27
8–9 a.m.
Presidential D

Robert Conenello, DPM, had his greatest learning experience when his life turned inside out. He became a patient forced to deal with a devastating cancer diagnosis, a challenge he will share on Thursday in his Opening Address, “Do Great Things.”

“I think we should have a personal war against average,” Dr. Conenello said. “Whatever endeavor we are trying to fulfill, it should be attempted with maximum effort. As doctors, fathers, husbands, and athletes, we need to do more than expected. Since my children have been young, I have always urged them to do great things.”

It is a simple adage that can apply to anyone in any situation, and one he hopes that attendees will take to heart.

“We as physicians have been given a great opportunity to touch lives. I will continue to do all I can to instill in others the passion to live life to its fullest by interacting with each other in a positive and mutually beneficial way.”

In 2012, Dr. Conenello, a past president of the American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine and an avid athlete, found himself forced into the role of patient as he faced a series of medical maladies.

“As physicians, we are trained to not only understand what the pathology is but, more importantly, why. I knew I had to advocate for myself to first understand the reason I was ill,” said Dr. Conenello, who practices at Orangetown Podiatry outside New York City and lives in Ridgewood, NJ.

He first dealt with glossopharyngeal neuralgia, an irritation of the ninth cranial nerve that leads to intense pain in the ear and throat. Two years after surgery, the symptoms returned and his doctor discovered a cancerous tumor in his throat.

His subsequent diagnosis was daunting—30 percent chance of survival, extensive surgery that would take most of his jaw and tongue—and, ultimately, wrong. His doctor had misidentified the particular form of cancer. Surgery was no longer necessary, but radiation and chemotherapy were still looming.

“I utilized my thought pattern as a clinician to think as logically as possible to help my medical team put the pieces together. You realize that all of your training as a physician helps you deal with [a health crisis], but truly it is the support team of family, friends, and patients that helps you move forward.”

Dr. Conenello’s experience as a patient—particularly one who faced a misdiagnosis—taught him how to be a better physician.

“Communication with our patients is paramount,” he said. “Through my journey, I have learned to become a better listener with my patients and realize that they will always help guide you. I have also learned to never discount any of my patients’ complaints. Their discomfort is subjective and is real to them.”

As the treatment to cure his cancer ravaged his body, Dr. Conenello stuck with his personal mantra. This focus has carried him through his personal and professional life with a positive outlook.

“Of course working hard at your craft is so important, but so is how we interact with each other,” he said. “A great thing could be listening better, showing kindness to someone less fortunate, or giving back more than you receive. I would hope that all attendees will realize that it is great to be successful, but in the grand scheme of life, it is much more important to be significant.”

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