By Jana Soeldner Danger
City & Shore PRIME
Editor’s note: Patients see Dr. William Leone, head of the Leone Center for Orthopedic Care at Holy Cross Hospital in Fort Lauderdale, as someone they hope will eliminate their pain and help them get back to an active lifestyle. But they might not recognize the person he is outside the office and operating room. The 59-year-old orthopedic surgeon is also a diver, pilot, an inventor and a builder, as well as a husband and father. Meet him here in our ongoing series, Avocations: Life beyond work.
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Some physicians might buy a fancy house or fast car after finishing medical school. The first thing Dr. William Leone did was buy a plane and take lessons until he earned a commercial pilot’s rating.
“It wasn’t practical,” he says. “I had a car with 152,000 miles on it, but I’d always wanted to be a pilot. Flying is a lot like medicine. You have to be 100 percent there in the moment and still think about what the next step will be.”
Dr. Leone grew up in Miami and loved being in the ocean. He earned scuba certification at the age of 13 and spent many hours hunting for lobsters in Biscayne Bay. He still loves diving. “It’s a wonderfully tranquil experience and a privilege to go into a different environment and not leave a footprint,” he says.
In his younger years, he also became skilled at free diving without tanks. “I got really good at it,” he says. “I could spear a fish in 80 feet and check an anchor in 100 feet of water. You learn not to breathe.”
These days, he enjoys diving in the Bahamas. “We have a house there that we built ourselves,” he says. “It’s a Home Depot house. We put up the boards and pounded the nails and did the plumbing. It’s been a 30-year project and an ongoing love affair.”
Flying high above the earth and diving deep beneath the ocean are alike in some ways, he says. “They’re both three dimensional. You’re not moving in just one plane; you’re going up and down and side to side. You see depth and perspective and see the relationships of things to each other.”
Seeing ‘people, not joints’
Dr. Leone always knew he wanted to be a physician, like his father. “It fits my personality,” he says. “The thing that comes most naturally to me is communication with people, and I’m very good with my hands.”
At first, he thought he might become a hand or plastic surgeon. But he’s glad he chose orthopedics “People come to me broken, and they feel all their quality of life is gone,” he says. “Then I do something to make them better and their pain is gone. I built my practice by being the one who took cases nobody else wanted.
“Orthopedics are dramatic and fun and gratifying,” he says. “I really hit the jackpot with this profession. I take care of people, not joints.”
He has seen his profession change over his 27 years of practice. Techniques, tools and devices have improved, but the attitudes of patients have also changed. “Patients keep pushing the envelope about what we can and can’t do, and we learn from our patients,” he says. “You can’t tell patients they can’t do something, because they do what they want to anyway. Nobody wants to give up quality of life.”
In 2009, he decided to make changes to his practice by reducing the number of cases he takes. “I was always running faster and faster. Now I have a destination practice geared toward people with special problems, and I get a lot of patients from out of the country,” he says.
“I don’t want a practice that’s just about quantity,” he adds. “I want real, personal relationships and quality. I’ve worked hard to create the old-fashioned kind of practice where you really talk to people.”
The slower pace also allows him to have dinner most evenings with his wife, Dee Ann, and 18-year-old daughter, Alessandra. On Saturday mornings, they walk or run together on the beach. They also have three dogs. “All of them are rescues, and they’re part of our family,” he says.
The many facets of his life have one thing in common: “Everything that interests me, in and out of surgery, is all about balance, precision and being in the moment,” he says. “I like collecting skills. It’s nice to change and not be Dr. Leone for a while, but to do something different and push my limits. Life is about opening your heart and making it bigger.”