News

Lebanon VA surgeon helps veterans live normal lives

Written by Daniel Walmer/The Lebanon Daily News | Aug 12, 2017 1:15 PM
Lebanon_VA_rex-herbert-2.jpg

Dr. Rex Herbert, an orthopedic surgeon at the Lebanon VA Medical Center, gives a tour of the surgery center on Wednesday. (Photo: Jeremy Long, Lebanon Daily News)

(Lebanon) -- The first time Vietnam War Army veteran Dennis Korzi needed a shoulder replacement, he trusted his doctor's recommendation for a surgeon.

The next year, when the Richland-area resident needed his other shoulder replaced, he knew from experience who he wanted to do the operation: orthopedic surgeon Rex Herbert, who left a booming private practice in Harrisburg in 2009 to join the Lebanon VA Medical Center.

Before Herbert had operated on him in 2015, Korzi was in "excruciating" pain and couldn't lift his arm high enough to do anything. After the surgery, he beat the expected timetable for recovery.

Dr. Rex Herbert see working for the VA as a way to give back to his country. By Daniel Walmer

Korzi isn't alone in his high praise for Herbert. When the Lebanon VA posted on Facebook a column a veteran wrote for a Minnesota newspaper thanking Herbert for fixing his arthritic knees, their page was flooded with testimonials from veterans whose lives were transformed by Herbert's skilled and steady hands.

For Herbert, the gratifying compliments are proof that he made the right decision to pursue his passion for helping veterans.

"One of the things I was missing in my career was serving in the military," he said. "I always felt that that was a missing chapter in my life, and I thought one of the ways I could fill that would be to try to take care of the veterans."

Mr. Fix It

Herbert became an athletic trainer in high school "because I didn't make the football team, basically" and then became the first paid student athletic trainer at Lebanon Valley College, he said.

He took a lot of injured athletes to the orthopedic unit, and gravitated toward orthopedics because it produced more gratifying and concrete results than some other forms of medicine.

"Patients come to you with a problem that's disabling to them, and you fix them, and they're like new," he said. "For me, it's very rewarding."

Orthopedic surgeons typically work in millimeters, not feet, have to be precise to achieve ideal results, and must have the calmness not to panic when complications arise, Herbert said. According to Stefanie Holler, a VA perioperative nurse who has worked with Herbert, he fits the bill.

"He is the best orthopedic surgeon I've seen in all my practice," Holler said. "His technique is top notch and his results show that. Just his finesse while working is something to watch."

But a common thread throughout comments on Facebook about Herbert is that he is more than just a good surgeon: he's a person who really seems to care about the people he's helping.

"I have found that one of the easiest ways to have people feel comfortable through their process of being operated on and having surgery is if they can relate better to the surgeon," he said. "If I have a farmer come down, I'll ask him about what kind of tractor he has, and then I'll tell him about my tractor."

After attending medical school in Philadelphia and completing a residency at a hospital in Columbus, Ohio, he began the Arlington Group in 1981 in Harrisburg. He added a surgeon every three years, and at one point had 90 employees to supervise.

But the stress of combined surgery and supervision began to take its toll- leading him to take on a very different side challenge that put him in contact with his future wife.

Soccer and love

Herbert came into contact with the owners of the late-1980s and early-1990s Hershey Impact professional indoor soccer team while serving as the team's physician. The owners, he contended, spent too much time focusing on the players and not enough time on the business aspects of the sport.

When the team folded, the National Professional Soccer League's commissioner asked him to consider buying the team, he said. After refusing three times, he finally agreed to buy the team in 1991 for $65,000 and move them to Harrisburg as the newly rebranded Harrisburg Heat.

"You put your money where your mouth is," he said. "I took it on more as a challenge - this can succeed in central Pennsylvania. You just have to do it right."

On the business end of soccer, there were improvements to be made. It was the infancy of the computer era, and the Heat had a big board on which each ticket was placed, so that they could know where each attendee was supposed to sit. One day, the female ticket manager dropped everyone's tickets on the floor, where they scattered, leaving them no choice but to let all of the attendees sit wherever they wanted.

Following the incident, Herbert worked with the ticket manager to create a computerized ticketing system - and in the process, they fell in love. Lisa Herbert has been married to Rex for 24 years.

Meanwhile, the Harrisburg Heat were doing well, averaging as many attendees in his second and third seasons as owner as the Hershey Bears, he said. But with costs for players, workers' compensation insurance, and airlines rising, Herbert sold the team for a profit in 1996.

Out of the ashes

Even though he no longer had soccer responsibilities, the stress of private practice was still taking its toll on Herbert by April 2009 - when a private calamity convinced him it was time to move on.

"We had a spontaneous combustion fire in one of our trashcans (at home). Until I caught it, it was too late," he said. "We grabbed two cars and the dog, and that was it. We lost everything."

Herbert decided to accept a job with the Lebanon VA that October.

The orthopedic unit had just one surgeon, one physician assistant and one nurse when he started, he said. Now, thanks to the unit's strong reputation and advocacy from local congressmen and VA leadership, the government has given it four of each. Veterans come from as far away as northern Delaware and Altoona to receive joint replacements there, he said.

Herbert insisted that he didn't build the unit on his own. The other surgeons, perioperative nurses, physician assistants, occupational therapists, and others are critical to his success, he said.

"I wouldn't be able to do it without a good staff," he said.

Herbert is now 67 years old, but he doesn't think his life's work is yet done.

"The veterans really have a huge need, nationwide, for orthopedic care, among other things. Some of these poor guys are going years and years with arthritic knees or torn rotator cuffs, and they just haven't, before this, had an opportunity to get them taken care of," he said. "My wife says, when am I going to retire from here. And I say, 'well, you know, I've got to make sure the veterans have someone to replace what I'm doing.'"

This article is part of a content-sharing partnership between WITF and the Lebanon Daily News.

Published in Lebanon, News

Tagged under , , , , , , , , ,

back to top

Give Now

Estate Planning

Support for WITF is provided by:

Become a WITF sponsor today »

Smart Talk

National Edward R. Murrow Awards

DuPont Columbia Awards

Support Local Journalism

Latest News from NPR

Support for WITF is provided by:

Become a WITF sponsor today »