Coughlin Clinic in the News: Father and Son Orthopedic Surgeons Save a Man’s Leg…Twice!
—The Idaho Statesmen
Tod Tripple never forgot the doctor who saved his foot. It happened when he was 12 years old. Tripple was on a Boy Scout trip outside his hometown of Glenns Ferry when he fell from a cliff. "I grabbed the top of a pointed rock and tried to shinny down when the top of the rock broke off," he said. "I hit the cliff going down and rolled down a steep incline. When I got up, bones were sticking out of my shoe." Elderly scoutmasters don't get merit badges, but Tripple's should have. He somehow made it down the cliff, carried the boy to the nearest road and flagged down a car that took him to a Glenns Ferry hospital.
"The doctor there said it was way beyond him and that I had to go to Boise." This was in 1949. There was no ambulance, so Tripple's uncle and mother put him on a stretcher and drove him in the family car. "The police escorted us from Mountain Home. My left ankle was completely shattered. When we got to St. Luke's, the doctors said my foot would have to be amputated."
No way, his mother said; not until his father got there. His father, a railroad engineer, was working in Oregon and needed several hours to get to Boise. When he arrived, he asked for a second opinion. Well, he was told, there was a new guy who had just moved here. A surgeon from California. The new guy said he couldn't guarantee anything but reconstructed the ankle the best he could. Tripple spent 13 months in a cast from his toe to the top of his thigh. He wasn't supposed to put any weight on his foot, but what 12-year-old can do that? Photos showed him winning the state marbles championship and playing baseball on crutches.
The operation proved to be a success anyway. Tripple didn't lose his foot and went on to live a full life. Now 73, he never stopped being grateful to the doctor who made it possible. His ankle, however, deteriorated as he aged. When it made walking painful and was keeping him up nights, he looked into the possibility of having it fixed. Once again, he found himself in the office of an orthopedic surgeon.
The surgeon, Dr. Michael Coughlin, is a Boise native with an international reputation. He's written textbooks on foot and ankle surgery and is a past president of the American orthopedic Foot & Ankle Society. Among other things, he helped lead an effort to get a Scandinavian total ankle replacement approved for use in the United States. As a result, he said, "Boise was the smallest place in America where you could get one. It was great because people who couldn't go to other places could have it done here."
One of them was Tripple. At their first appointment, Coughlin asked him how his ankle was injured when he was a boy. "He said someone wanted to amputate, but there was a doctor who tried to save it," Coughlin said. "I was interested in who and where." He wasn't prepared for the answer. Tripple hadn't made the connection yet, but the doctor who had saved his foot 61 years earlier was Coughlin's father.
Dr. James Coughlin, who died in 2007, was only the second orthopedic surgeon in Idaho. The kid whose foot would have been amputated without his help went on to play football for Boise Junior College and Idaho State University (running on the balls of his feet because his flexibility was limited). He served as an army reservist, hunted, fished, rode horses, water skied and did farm work. Through all that, he never so much as sprained his shattered ankle.
In June, he got his new, Scandinavian ankle. "I can move it up and down and to the side now," he said. "And there's no pain." When he and his doctor realized who did the original operation in 1949, he added, "We both had tears in our eyes." Coughlin said it made him appreciate "how special my father was as a surgeon." "There's no doubt that the dad saved my ankle," Tripple said. "Now the son has saved it again. It's a continued miracle."