Dr. Kenneth F. Spence Jr.
Dr. Kenneth F. Spence Jr., a highly regarded Baltimore orthopedic surgeon who was a Vietnam War veteran, died Monday of leukemia at Hooper House Hospice in Forest Hill.
The former longtime Columbia resident was 79.
The son of a civil engineer and a homemaker, Dr. Spence was born and raised in Hagerstown, where he was a 1949 graduate of Hagerstown High School.
After graduating from Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., in 1953, he enrolled at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, where he earned a medical degree in 1957.
Dr. Spence enlisted in the Navy, where he served a one-year orthopedic internship that was followed by a three-year orthopedic surgical residency at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda.
He also completed in 1962 a one-year pediatric residency at the James Lawrence Kernan Hospital in Baltimore.
Board certified by the American Board of Orthopedic Surgery in 1965, Dr. Spence served a tour of duty in Vietnam as an orthopedic surgeon with the Third Medical Battalion that was assigned to the Marine Corps in Danang.
He was also chief of orthopedic surgery at the Navy Hospital in Danang.
"While stationed at the Danang hospital, when he wasn't treating wounded soldiers, he took time out to treat Vietnamese civilians at a clinic in Danang, including performing a complicated surgery, with a neurosurgeon colleague, on a young Vietnamese civilian's cervical spine," said a son, Kenneth F. Spence III of Edina, Minn.
An article titled "Doctors: Spare Time in Vietnam," which was published in 1966 in Time Magazine, recalled the surgery that the two doctors performed on Hoi Pham Tri, "a tiny, frail Vietnamese girl of 13," reported the magazine.
"For four hours, Neurosurgeon Paul Pitlyk and Orthopedist Kenneth Spence worked on the prone patient's cervica spine. They cut under the spinal cord, removed the tooth-shaped projection that hooks the second vertebra into the first just below the skull, and then deliberately fractured the two vertebrae," reported the magazine.
"The white spinal cord continued to pulsate regularly, but there was no assurance that Hoi Pham would ever move her limbs again — until the surgeons gave a sharp tweak to her left leg. It kicked up smartly."
The article described the surgery as "a near miracle" that restored the patient's ability to freely move her limbs. It also praised U.S. military doctors and corpsmen whose "voluntary response" helped care for civilians with medical problems.
After serving in Vietnam, Dr. Spence returned to Bethesda Naval Hospital where he was assistant chief of orthopedics, until being discharged with the rank of commander in 1969.
He returned to Baltimore and established Orthopedic Associates of Central Maryland with partners Dr. John J. Tansey and Dr. Michael A. Ellis.
During the early 1970s, Dr. Spence and Kernan Hospital, where he was surgeon-in-chief, were among the first physicians and hospitals to perform arthroscopy surgery and total joint replacements.
"These are both common procedures today," his son said.
"Dr. Spence was the consummate physician," said Dr. George Brouillet, who is a longtime friend, partner and colleague with Orthopedic Associates of Central Maryland. "He was extremely bright, a gifted surgeon and a skilled teacher. He consistently sought better methods to provide care."
Dr. Brouillet, who has been with the practice since 1986 and is now a managing partner, said that Dr. Spence was "my mentor."
"He was my mentor and best friend," he said. "His influence is national and he trained many residents with humor and without rancor and that doesn't happen much anymore."
Before there was today's sub-specialty known as sports medicine, Dr. Spence "recognized that athletes presented unique challenges in order to return to high levels of performance and developed techniques for helping them do so," said Dr. Brouillet.
Dr. Spence was team physician for the old Baltimore Bullets basketball team from 1969 to 1973, and for the Baltimore Blast from 1983 to 1993.
Professional athletes who sought Dr. Spence's medical expertise included Wes Unseld, Johnny Unitas, Earl "The Pearl" Monroe and Gus Johnson.
In 1978, Dr. Spence told The Baltimore Sun that flat-footed joggers ran the risk of putting so much stress on their leg muscles and bone that pain could last for weeks.
He suggested that runners get an orthotic insole made "to hold the heel straight and support the arch," he told the newspaper, and also said blistering could be avoided by not wearing "ill-fitting shoes."
For more than 20 years, Dr. Spence was assistant clinical professor at the University of Maryland Medical School and also taught residents at Kernan Hospital.