Dr. Gary Baker: Serving His Country, Patients & the Medical Community
Posted by Sean Timm
“I didn't originally know that I was going to go into pain management,” Dr. Gary Baker says, sitting behind his desk in his Lakewood, California office. “During my residency, though, my grandmother got cancer and she developed a pain syndrome where the cancer was pressing on a nerve near her chest. And I saw how hard of a time the doctors were having treating her pain.”
At the time, in the early 90s, pain management was still a new specialty, existing more as a branch of anesthesiology than as its own medical field. “I ended up doing a rotation through a pain management fellowship,” Baker explains, “and I saw that there was a real need for more doctors to get into this.”
The primary physician and director for Advanced Pain Specialists of Southern California, Baker has challenged himself to fill that need. For nearly three decades, he’s found ways to help patients and communities, both when it comes to grappling with pain and improving their overall health.
Welcome to Lakewood
“I've been at this Lakewood location since 1997,” Baker says proudly. “And some of my patients are actually some of the same patients I began seeing all the way back in ‘97.”
A small town roughly 20 miles southeast of Los Angeles, Lakewood serves as the perfect home base for Baker and his team to work throughout the greater-LA area. “We now have four offices, one in each county in Southern California — so Los Angeles, Orange County, Riverside, and San Bernardino.”
Furthermore, Baker sees to all of them. “It’s what we call our travel team. We literally set up our clinic at each of our other offices on certain days of the month,” seeing and treating as wide a population of patients as possible.
Serving a Greater Community
That idea of bringing your clinic to your patients is something Baker is more experienced with than most. Starting during his residency at UCLA, he enlisted in the Air Force Reserve.
“I started my residency in anesthesiology. It was right around the time after the first Gulf War, and one of the anesthesiologists I worked with was in the Reserve. He was telling me about it, about serving his country, and I just thought, ‘You know, I really respect this guy, maybe I should see what this is all about.”
Before long, he was in the Air Force Reserve, and he went on to serve another nine years.
“I might have had some ulterior motives for joining the Air Force,” he jokes, thinking back on it. “Part of me wanted to go flying and hang around pilots. As it turned out, I got too busy.”
Having risen through the ranks and eventually leaving the Reserve as a Major, Baker describes his service, saying, “Basically, we’d get a call and the whole unit would be able to mobilize and set up a field hospital within only a few days, something similar to what you’ve probably seen the National Guard doing for COVID.”
Like any medical practice, though, he admits the next steps then revolved around logistics and paperwork, “all the ins-and-outs of actually running a hospital.” The difference was that as a military unit, “we had to train for different types of scenarios and be ready for all the different types of situations where we could be called up.”
Giving Something Back
Keeping himself just as busy, even after leaving the Reserve, Baker continued to grow his practice and also found time to give back to the medical community at large. Giving frequent lectures in the past, Baker is an authority when it comes to advancing pain management treatments and helping educate other medical professionals.
“Especially early on in my practice, as pain management wasn’t quite as well-known or readily available, giving lectures was a way to educate people.” More than that, though, Baker found he had a passion for teaching.
“I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that if you love something, you want to share it. I love what I do in pain management, and I like talking about it — especially if anybody's interested in hearing about it,” he explains with a grin.
“Part of it is also, I have an appreciation that during all the years that I was studying there were people who took an interest in teaching me. So it's kind of a way to pay it back.”
Building a Better Pain Management System
One aspect of pain management Baker is particularly happy to talk about is what’s called “functional restoration.” Still considered by many to be a relatively new frontier in pain management, functional restoration is a type of chronic pain treatment built on the idea of taking a more comprehensive, multi-specialty approach.
While Advanced Pain Specialists of Southern California offers general pain management care, Baker also oversees their Functional Restoration Program. Usually lasting six weeks, patients come in five days a week and work with different specialists. “A physical therapist might help work on your core strengthening. A relaxation specialist might help you with managing your pain without first turning to a pill, learning breathing techniques. Nutrition is a big part of the program as well,” he says.
“And of course, a psychologist, particularly for those who have had chronic pain for a really long time. It helps to sort out how the pain has impacted aspects of their lives — their relationships — and to help them come up with a plan for how to deal with some of those challenges.”
Taking Pain Management Remote
Baker believes in the functional restoration program wholeheartedly and wishes they could use it to help even more patients. Unfortunately, practical considerations like cost and time place very real limitations on what they can do, and that was even before lockdowns went into place a year ago.
He remembers the moment well, seeing the announcement on TV, “essentially this is what's going to happen, and this is going to happen, starting now.” That night, Baker went home unsure what his practice would look like the next day. “In only about a day and a half we went from seeing patients to basically 90% telehealth. It was rocky at first, but we’ve been that way since last March.”
Acknowledging just how much of a roller coaster the last year has been, he says, “We're just rolling with it like everybody else.”
Serving Patients When They Need It Most
Despite those difficulties, though, it’s the patients that brought him to pain management, and they’re the ones that keep him going now, no matter how hard it gets. “When you have patients who are in chronic pain, who've gone to many doctors — some who have blown them off, or just didn’t know what to do — and then they are in your office and say, ‘Hey, Doc, you know you're pretty much my last hope.’ That sincere trust they have in you…” he trails off, trying to find the right words.
“That's really left an impact on me, and it makes me appreciate how special it is to be able to help somebody on such a personal level. I take it seriously and every day I think about that, and how I can keep helping people.”
The past year has been difficult for everyone, but the healthcare community has carried possibly the greatest weight of all. Speaking both to colleagues on the front lines and to all those dealing with the indirect effects of the pandemic, “I think it’s important to know that you're not alone,” Baker says.
“There are other people going through it with you and you need to reach out to those people. Don't isolate yourself. Sometimes knowing that you're part of this bigger group can make all the difference. Don't get overwhelmed by the big picture. Just try to stay more in the moment and just make each day count. And know that tomorrow is going to be better.”