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  • Rest in peace, Dr. Campagna ... and thank you

  • The man who saved my life was laid to his eternal rest on Friday.
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  • The man who saved my life was laid to his eternal rest on Friday.
    No, this is not journalistic hyperbole or poetic balderdash.
    Neurosurgeon Mario Joseph Campagna, whose funeral was in Medford, quite literally gave me the past four decades of my life. He died July 3 of congestive heart failure at age 86.
    Were it not for his superb surgical skills, I would not have had a full life that included children, graduating from college, an interesting job and travel.
    When we met in mid-May 1971, I was a shiny new civilian, having just completed a hitch in the Marine Corps.
    I was also a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the neck down, thanks to an incredibly irresponsible decision to celebrate with buddies by drinking and driving. Fortunately, I was the only one injured.
    That painful sound of my neck snapping — like a carrot being broken — echoes forever in my memory. It brought instant sobriety.
    I remember the ambulance ride and being taken into the intensive care unit of what is now Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center, waiting for the neurosurgeon to pay a visit. The nurses warned me the doctor's bedside manner was not warm and fuzzy.
    But they also noted he had come to Medford from the renowned Mayo Clinic. I would be in good hands, they assured me.
    They were right on both counts.
    There were no bromides, no pointless small talk. Dr. Campagna was all business.
    After studying the X-rays, the neurosurgeon said there was a chance I could regain some mobility through an operation that included cutting a piece of bone from my left hip and wiring it to my broken vertebrae. The goal was to reduce the pressure on my spinal cord while fusing the bones to strengthen my neck, he explained.
    I recall telling him about an old Corps saying that, if you are not squared away, you need your head and posterior wired together. He didn't smile.
    But I was putting on a bit of bravado. Inside, I had never been more afraid. Being paralyzed is like being buried up to your neck. I felt like I was being slowly smothered.
    Yet within several days of the operation, I was able to move the big toe on my left foot. At that point, I knew I could fight my way back on my feet.
    The fact I could wiggle my toe did bring a smile to Dr. Campagna. The fact I asked him whether I would be able to wrestle in college also told him I was going to give it my all, he told me last year.
    Still, it would take the rest of the year in Portland's VA hospital before I could walk, relying on a cane.
    I would forever have a hitch in my gait, thanks to lacking full movement on my right side. But I knew I was exceedingly fortunate. A paralyzed friend in the VA hospital had died, a reminder of how close I had come to meeting the Grim Reaper.
    It wasn't until May 2012 that I visited Dr. Campagna at his Medford home to offer a long belated thanks for saving my life that spring. He met me at the door with a broad smile and with Edie, his wife of 60 years. Sadly, she passed away earlier this year.
    He turned out to be a pleasant fellow. Since I was one of countless patients over the years, he did not remember the specifics of my case, although he recalled it in general terms. He also checked out what I call my Frankenstein zipper, the half-foot-long scar he left on the back of my neck.
    And he provided some insight on why he zeroed in on the medical challenge at hand when he was working, not chitchat.
    "You focus on the pathology," he explained. "You have to concentrate on that to get the job done right."
    When meeting former patients on the street, he said he often did not remember them yet invariably recalled the operation.
    "I'll remember the tumor but not the patient," he said with a chuckle.
    Yet it wasn't until I wrote a news story about his passing that I understood his full impact on our community after arriving back in his native Oregon in 1957 from the Mayo Clinic.
    Medford neurologist Kevin Sullivan, who joined Campagna's practice in 1974 and worked with him until the latter retired in 1991, called him his mentor and good friend.
    "During his entire practice I never heard him complain about working too hard, not getting enough sleep or being on call too much," Sullivan said. "He was always so upbeat. I'm not sure they make neurosurgeons like that anymore."
    Alan Bates, a longtime family care doctor in Medford as well as a state senator, called Campagna "one of the best medical doctors I've ever seen."
    When he sent Campagna a case, Bates said, he would often be invited to assist on a procedure.
    "He would talk you through it," he said. "It was like going back to medical school. He was a great teacher, very polite and respectful."
    In an email, Dr. Jeffrey Louie, who described himself as Campagna's junior neurosurgical colleague, indicated the late doctor left a lasting medical legacy.
    "He was a confident, supportive and wonderful colleague and an amazing, daring and skillful surgeon," he wrote.
    "We in southern Oregon are blessed that a physician, who could have chosen to practice at any major institution in the country, chose our community as his home," he rightfully concluded.
    Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.
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