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Voyager Bud Shaw gives up scalpel for pen

April 20, 2017 Leave a comment

If you follow my work via my blog or Facebook page then you may have noticed I like writing about fellow writers. I mean, beyond the natural affinity I feel for anyone who takes up the pen and sticks with it, there are myriad things about the writing life that are universal and singular to each writer I profile. There’s no single path to becoming a writer and every writer’s life around the work and separate from it looks a little different, sometimes a lot different. And then there’s the very different kinds of writing people do and the unique voices they express. The subject of this New Horizons cover story, Bud Shaw, is a medical doctor and writer who’s gained a measure of fame for training his inner eye and ear on his former life as a transplant surgeon through essays, several of them collected in his well-received book, Last Night in the OR. Though it took him until about a decade ago to finally write about his own personal experiences, he’s been writing since he was a child. It can take the better part of a lifetime to find one’s voice, especially that voice residing deep within the inner recesses and nooks and crannies of our subconscious. When Shaw finally did find his, he revealed himself to be a strong, spare writer in the style of his literary heroes. My profile of Shaw will appear in the May 2017 issue of the New Horizons, a free montly newspaper from the Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging. Beginning April 28, look for the new issue at area newsstands or, if you’re a subscriber, in your mailbox,. Order your free subscription by calling 402-444-6654.

 

Voyager Bud Shaw gives up scalpel for pen

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in the May 2017 issue of the New Horizons

 

Before Dr. Bud Shaw gained fame as a liver transplant surgeon, first in Pittsburgh, then at the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC), he was a writer. An adventurer, too. He’s a veteran small-engine pilot and hang gliding enthusiast and an avid bicycle trekker.

His wonderment with words goes back to childhood. It continued during his formal education – all the way through undergraduate and medical studies. Even during his surgical career he continued writing whenever he had down time. But since putting down the scalpel for the pen, his writing’s really taken off.

For decades he composed fiction but in recent years he’s turned to nonfiction. Some of his highly personal essays have won recognition. His 2015 book Last Night in the OR was a New York Times Bestseller.

His wife Rebecca Rotert is an award-winning poet, short story writer and essayist whose first novel Last Night at the Blue Angel was well-received.

Shaw leads writing clubs at the Med Center. He advocates students and professionals take writing courses to enrich their humanities education. He cites research showing the health benefits of writing.

“When you write something down as opposed to talking about it, it gets stored in long-term memory – with far fewer details but more indelibly – and it’s in an area where your brain keeps working on it. It’s like the thing where you write something and put it away and come back to it and you start editing it immediately when you couldn’t have done that the day before. But your brain’s been working on it.”

He said studies show that in “patients who wrote for three days in a row their brain did some processing that somehow also helped them deal with their illness.”

 

 

Image result for bud shaw unmc omaha

 

Reading and writing

Prose fed Shaw’s imaginative escapes as a youth.

“I read a lot. As a kid I got sick frequently and I’d end up having to stay home. We had bookshelves full of books. My mother bought a series of classics for kids: Black Beauty, Treasure Island, Bambi. I would pick them out and read them, and then I got into The Hardy Boys and when I read all that I even tried Nancy Drew.”

He became a familiar figure at the local library.

Family trips to Crystal River, Florida got him hooked on diving and his natural curiosity and affinity for reading found him hunting every book he could on the subject.

“My school projects were reports about the aqua lung and the difference between one and two stage regulators and how you could get the bends and prevent that. I knew the decompression tables when i was 12.”

Writing had already become an outlet.

“I began writing seriously in second grade, My mother helped me write a romantic adventure novel involving a boy and his pony. It filled 10 pages of Golden Rod tablet paper we bound with rubber cement and a cardboard cover. She died a few years later and I guess I’ve been looking for that kind of approval ever since.”

His passion for literature was stoked at Kenyon College a small liberal arts school near where he grew up in rural Ohio. There, he said, “reading and writing were paramount and literature became a limitless world for me – a world where anything could happen. I was a chemistry major, but I filled the other spaces with literature and creative writing courses. In the first two years of medical school, those intellectual pursuits were largely replaced with the drudgery of rote memorization. I found myself obsessively writing short stories and sending them off to Redbook, Playboy and Reader’s Digest. It was a useful diversion and the rejections hardly mattered.”

His literary favorites range from John Steibeck, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner to Kurt Vonnegut, Gunter Grass and Cormac McCarthy.

 

Image result for last night in the or bud shaw

 

Finding his niche as a transplant surgeon

Though his father was a surgeon, Bud at first resisted following in his footsteps. He said the fact he eventually did was “probably because he didn’t push it on me.” Shaw received his MD at Case Western Reserve University, did general surgery training in Utah and completed a transplant surgery fellowship in Pittsburgh,

There, he made a name for himself as a talented maverick working under the father of transplantation in America, the late Tom Strazl. The two men shared a complicated relationship.

“Most of the advances going on at that time in transplantation were happening in Pittsburgh. I was working with Starzl, who then was by far the most important pioneer in transplantation. I would have stayed there happily and worked with him but it just became more and more difficult.”

Shaw left because he disagreed with the way certain things were being done that he felt hampered surgeons’ learning and endangered patients’ lives.

“I wanted to change the way we did things and I realized I wasn’t going to be able to do that there as much as I wanted. I realized I didn’t want to be part of a program that was chaotic and dangerous for patients.”

Prestigious hospitals coveted having this hot shot young surgeon come start a transplant program in what was a sexy new medical horizon making headlines.

“It was a brand new field. I had probably done more liver transplants in the previous two years than anybody in the world .”

Coming to Omaha and building a world-class transplantation program

UNMC recruited him. It didn’t have the cachet of other courters but it proved the right fit. It helped that the man pursuing him. Layton “Bing” Rikkers, knew him when Shaw trained in general surgery at the University of Utah, where Rikkers had taught.

“Once I got trained in transplant I always intended to go back to the University of Utah but they just didn’t seem to want to do it (start a transplant program).”

When Rikkers took the UNMC job he asked Shaw to join him but Shaw wouldn’t be persuaded – at first.

“I told him I want to go someplace with a seacoast or mountains or preferably both.”

Rikkers wouldn’t take no for an answer. He strategically brought Shaw in as a consultant on the ABCs of starting a transplant program. Shaw met a Med Center contingent, including Mike Sorrell and Jim Armitage, who, he said, were “incredibly enthusiastic about doing liver transplants.” “There was a stark contrast between the attitude here, which was one of ‘We understand we don’t know anything about how to do this – we need you to be the expert,’ and what I found elsewhere.”

Shaw said. “I realized this was a rare opportunity because I’d interviewed at much more famous, high-powered places. I’d told them the same thing I told UNMC – I can’t come alone, I’m going to bring a junior surgeon with me and I need to have an anesthesia team go to Pittsburgh and learn how to do anesthesia and a pathologist go learn how to read the biopsies of the liver. And all these places said, ‘No, we have experts, we’re sure they can handle this, and we have very precious faculty positions to maintain.”

He said other centers didn’t appreciate just what a commitment they needed to make.

“They said, ‘We want you to come start this and we’ll see how it goes,’ and I said, ‘See how it goes? This is a high risk sort of thing.’ That’s when I realized they were mainly interested in doing this not because they were interested in treating liver disease but because it was a cool thing to start doing and they didn’t want to be left out. This place (UNMC) was clearly different. It was one of the only places in the country thinking about this as a long-term prospect they could succeed in, and that’s why I came here.”

One of Shaw’s biggest contentions with the way things were done in Pittsburgh that he changed in Omaha was transplant surgeons not having responsibility for post-op patient care. Some patients get profoundly sick after transplant surgery and lax care can exacerbate already dire situations.

“On a typical Sunday morning I’d find three transplant patients in the ICU and two of them would be bleeding still and I’d have to take them back and fix them in the operating room. I’d go talk to the family and they’d say, ‘Nobody’s talked to us.’ So I found myself cleaning up messes made by other surgeons who weren’t being supervised adequately and hadn’t had enough training.

“I talk about this in the book,” Shaw said. “Tom Starzl never wanted to have a routine, he wanted to change it every time, and you just can’t teach other people what works and what doesn’t work very well if you’re changing it constantly.”

After coming to Omaha in 1985 with his first wife and establishing a world-class solid organ (liver, kidney, pancreas, heart) transplant program here, the city became their home.

“I came here with the idea we’d spend five years and then move to one of those places with seacoast and mountains, but at the end of five years we had a really good program going. We were still growing, we were doing innovative things.

“I got recruited to go look at a couple of jobs right around that time. I just realized it was going to be like starting over and the politics would be worse. There’s no advantage of going to those places other than geography and I can buy a plane ticket.”

Diversions by ground and air

He’s bought plenty of tickets over the years to make bike tours with friends in scenic spots around the globe:

Cuba

Costa Rica

Panama

Argentina

Chile

Scotland

Nova Scotia

Newfoundland

Hungary

Slovakia

Poland

France

Italy

Crete

Australia

Vietnam

Cambodia

Then there’s his life as a pilot. He got his license at 19.

“I bought a 1939 J-3 Cub and flew it back to college. I had another airplane in Utah where I also took up hang gliding. I didn’t have any aircraft in 1981 when I arrived in Pittsburgh, but by 1984 I bought a used seaplane that I also took to Omaha in 1985. I eventually sold it and joined two other guys in a partnership in several airplanes.

“I plan on getting my glider rating this summer.”

Shaw’s logged enough hours behind the controls to have had some harrowing moments in the air.

“Every pilot with that many years experience has many stories to tell, as do I. I’ve been scared several times when weather closed in on me unexpectedly while flying cross-country. I flew aerobatics for half a dozen years in the ’90s. That was always exciting but I never had any close calls doing that. I had a couple of close calls hang gliding. I describe one in the book.”

More often than not, his time in the sky has afforded sublime glimpses of beauty. He recalled a Utah ridge that provided “wonderful soaring” and close encounters with Bald and Golden eagles living in the rocky cliffs.

“They often came out and flew along with us, sometimes showing off their aerobatic skills.”

Unexpected turbulence 

Then there was the 1973 coming-of-age flight he made in his little Cub with an acquaintance of his from Ohio, Scottie Wilson.

“The summer of ’73 was between my first and second year of medical school, which I hated. I’d restored an airplane I kept out at the local airport. Scottie had just gotten his wings for the Air Force. That summer we flew in my little Cub a lot together. Toward the end of the summer he had to get to Tuscon, Arizona for combat training. He was going to drive and I said maybe we should fly my Cub out there.

“There were multiple times during that trip where I was going to quit medical school and become a jet jockey.

When the whole thing was done I had to turn around and fly back by myself, and this was like two weeks before I was getting married. I had sort of abandoned ship and ran away.”

The event proved a crucible for Shaw.

“Right after I crossed the Continental Divide there was a storm up ahead I realized iI couldn’t fly around or above so I just landed on a road. As I was sitting there watching this storm go by I started crying. I had this deep sense of loss.”

Broke and out of fuel, he siphoned gas from every small plane on the line at the airport. Back home. he married. started a family and completed his studies. That summer interlude never left him but it’s only recently he

tried writing about it.

“I told Rebecca about it and she said, ‘There’s a romance there of a kind,’ and there really was. A closeness developed in a short period of time that was very different than any experience I’ve had with another guy.”

Intent on catching up with his old pal, Shaw happened to open a magazine to a story about Wilson restoring a 1938 Bugatti airplane presumed lost during World War II. The plane was rediscovered and Wilson, a retired Air Force officer, was building a replica.

“I tracked him down through Facebook and we ended up spending hours on the phone three or four different times over the space of a couple months. My plan was to go see him. He was in the process of starting to test fly this plane. I talked to him in May 2016 and in December I got an email from his brother that said, ‘I’m sure by now you’ve heard about Scottie dying…’ He’d taken the plane up again and was barely off the ground when it happened.

“He’d sent me some sample writing. He wanted me to help him write the story of this airplane.”

Wilson’s passing marked the latest of four recent deaths of important people in Shaw’s life. He feels compelled to write about what they meant to him.

“I have lots of starts in different directions in talking about the way your relationship with your mentors is more like a love affair than it is like a parenting             relationship. It’s like seeking their love and approval more-so than maybe with a parent.”

Merging his personal, medical and writing lives

When Shaw was still doing transplants he was barraged by life and death events but so cut-off from them emotionally he didn’t write about them.

“I was so busy and chronically sleep deprived I rarely had time or inclination to write. Except on vacation. Once I got away from work, I inevitably started writing. It was always fiction. By the mid-’90s I had the starts of five novels. I took a sabbatical in 1996 to write and came away with a 180,000-word novel that isn’t yet worthy of publication. Of course, family and friends all thought it was wonderful but nobody else did. I was afraid of getting it reviewed by anybody.

“None of my writing then had any direct relationship to my work. I think it was largely a way to escape the stress of that life.”

Shaw’s real growth as a writer began when he confronted his own life on the page at the 2007 Kenyon Review Workshop.

“It was very educational and inspirational to actually have to write something and then to have people critique it. It was the first time I had valuable critique of what I’d written. I began to understand what I needed to do to improve things was to keep writing, to keep having people critique and then keep changing and writing.”

His next evolution came as a participant in the Seven Doctors Project that puts doctors together with writers.

Shaw was in the project’s first group of doctors in 2008 and he participated in several other sessions the next few years. One session in particular proved fruitful.

“I did get some wonderful stuff from the review of what I wrote that year. The most telling thing was from another writer there, Rebecca Rotert” (whom he ended up marrying after he and his first wife split).

“When it was my turn to read, everybody complimented how they liked this or liked that and then all of a sudden Rebecca said, ‘Okay, here’s the deal: I don’t know what this person’s motivations are. We’re missing some of the basic things of a story and by now we should know this.’

I started to feel defensive and then I thought, ‘Oh my God, she’s absolutely right,’ and I can fix that because I know what the answers to those questions are.”

All of it spurred him to explore his own life in nonfiction writing. The more he drew from his personal experience, the more he liberated himself.

“I was finally able to think about some of the experiences I had and to step back from them far enough to actually write about them without having a strong emotional agenda that kept me from doing it before.”

With each story he takes from his own life, he’s puts himself on the line.

“I suppose writing highly personal nonfiction stories is risky for anyone. I felt I couldn’t do it unless I found a way to be more objective about the most difficult and emotional experiences. I had to resist the temptation to ‘set the record straight.’ I had to discover instead the other stories within those moments.”

His first published essay, My Night With Ellen Hutchinson, is about a devastating personal and professional episode early in his career.

“As I sat down to write about it, I discovered just how stubbornly I still held onto a version of that story that blamed others, that let me off the hook for the death of a patient during a liver transplant. I had to revisit that night over and over again for weeks to reconstruct a view that wasn’t about the cause of the failure so much as it was about the results of it. It wasn’t easy.

“That was a very straight forward operation. In my mind, I’d done everything right. I got the new liver sewn into place and blood flowing into it and everything was just great when her heart stopped. And yet, the technical details of why the woman’s heart stopped and how we should have handled it and how today, I know she would not have died because of what we later learned to prevent the problem, none of that was a story worth recounting. I needed a fresh and far more human perspective, and that required me to do a lot of processing I hadn’t done before.

“Now I don’t seem able to stop.”

For years Shaw erected shields warding off self-reflection when people’s lives were in his hands.

“The protective mechanisms were about dealing with failure, where failure could be somebody’s death. After failure I felt it absolutely necessary to approach the next case with supreme confidence that everything is going to go well. There’s a lot of ways of getting to that point. Maybe the quickest way is to simply say, ‘That last problem – that wasn’t my fault.’ But that’s not the only way. Another way, but it’s not the one I took, is to think about it more and to recognize we’re fallible and I did play a role in that, and what can I do next time to make sure that doesn’t happen again.

“It would have taken the ability of being more mindful as they call it now.”

 

 

            

 

Frailties 

In his book Shaw reveals his own and others’ frailties as counterpoint to the God-like status medical professionals are held in or hold themselves in. His essays chronicle how he didn’t let things touch him, not the lives he saved or lost, not even his own bout with cancer, What opened the flood gates of introspection was the disabling anxiety that overcame him in 2006.

“I didn’t have any problems with social anxiety at all

until one day I was sitting in my living room and suddenly had a panic attack that eventually caused me to crawl into bed and cover up. I had no idea what was causing it. It just came out of the blue.”

Some days at work he couldn’t leave his office. He finally sought help. Drugs help regulate the condition. Writing about it has been freeing.

“What the writing has done is help me understand and accept the fact that I have this problem. It’s also helped me recognize I did have these protective things and the question in my mind is – what if I had been as self-aware and self-reflective when I was in the midst of this incredibly intense surgical career with all this risk?

Would I have been able to continue? I think the answer to that question is probably yes.

“The process of writing about my own experiences really did open up my writing in a way. That, and there were about three books I read around that time that made me become much more spare, to work harder on eliminating stuff. The big problem I had was my need to make sure you understood everything, explaining

everything. Being freed up from the idea that you have to explain everything was like a miracle. You can actually let people figure out stuff on their own.”

He said a UNMC colleague objected to how much medical imperfection he revealed in his book.

“She said, ‘This is a huge mistake. Nobody should pull back the curtain and expose these sorts of things.’ I said, ‘Why, do you think people are going to come after us with torches?’ She said, ‘Well, they might,’ and I said, ‘Well, if they do, maybe we deserve it.’ I certainly got lots of positive feedback from surgeons outside of here. In fact, I’m still getting it.”

A notable exception was his old mentor Tom Starzl, who reacted strongly against the book. It strained the two men’s already tenuous relationship. As a show of respect and peace offering, Shaw attended Starzl’s 90th birthday celebration.

“I gave him a big hug and he started crying. It was very emotional.”

Starzl died a year later.

Before Shaw could get his book published, UNMC made him jump through hoops to change details so as to avoid privacy issues.

“A lot of the essays had been written with the names of the real people involved before I knew these stories were going to be part of a book,” Shaw said. “I had to start looking at how I could contact these people (for their permission). I knew I wasn’t allowed to look in the medical records for that purpose and I knew I couldn’t ask anybody else to do it for that purpose.

“I couldn’t remember some of their names. I was in the process of trying to sort out how to contact them when the privacy officer at the hospital called and said you can’t write about any of your experiences here.”

The decree made Shaw bristle. He resisted the blanket refusal, pointing out there was nothing in his contract or in UNMC’s HIPPA policy preventing him from doing it.

“Eventually I could not get them to allow me to contact the people. So I went in and changed enough of the details that there’s just no way anybody could recognize the real people.”

 

 

Doing what he has to do

Some of his writing does name names. His essay A Doctor at His Daughter’s Hospital Bed recounts the time  he intervened in the care of his daughter Natalie, who was hospitalized with pneumonia and not getting the IV fluids he knew she needed.

“I know I shouldn’t be my daughter’s doctor. They taught us the problems with that during my first week in medical school. It’s a really bad idea, especially in high-risk situations. We doctors are also very superstitious that when dealing with family members … something is always going to go wrong. The more the Special Person hovers over the care of his or her loved one, the worse the complication will be. I’ve had conversations in which doctors feel they change their routine with V.I.P. patients, and it’s that disruption in routine that allows error to creep into their care.

“But right now, I don’t care about any of that. I’m the one with experience taking care of really sick patients, and if I know she needs more fluids, she’s going to get them.

I break into the crash cart … I pull out two liters of saline solution and run both into Natalie’s IV in less than 20 minutes. Natalie’s pulse slows and her blood pressure rises. An hour later, after the nursing supervisor and on-call resident finally arrive, I’ve finished infusing a third liter. Natalie finally looks better.

“This wasn’t the first time during Natalie’s illness … I broke my promise to just be her dad.”

It also wasn’t the first or last time he crossed the medical care barrier with a loved one.

My younger son, Joe, almost died … from septic shock. He became ill while I was out of town. I flew home and by the time I arrived at the hospital, he looked deathly ill to me. I told the nurse I thought he should be transferred to the intensive care unit, but she said the doctors thought he was improving. Joe stopped breathing during the night and I have blamed myself ever since for not insisting they move him.

“Over and over again during my dad’s last few years of life, I felt as if I should have just moved in with him so that I could prevent all the well-meaning doctors and nurses from killing him. Sometimes it was just because his doctors weren’t talking to one another and their conflicting prescriptions sent Dad to the hospital. In the end, he died about 10 minutes after receiving an injection I didn’t want him to receive.”

Shaw’s daughter did recover but, he writes. “I didn’t.” He explains in his essay:

“I stopped operating and taking care of really sick people two years later. I told myself I had become too distracted by my increasing administrative duties to be a safe doctor. I was glad to leave all that behind. Now I just want to sit on the sidelines and marvel as a new generation of doctors performs the miracles. I never again want to step in to rescue someone I love. But I will, if I have to.”

On a pedestal 

He had occasion to operate on public figures or loved ones of celebrities. Such was the case in 1993 when he performed liver transplants on Hollywood icon Robert Reford’s son, Jamie Redford, in Omaha.

As is often the case, patients with good outcomes form an attachment with their surgeons that is one-part gratitude and one-part adulation. It was no different with Jamie Redford, who on Instagram recently posted a photo of himself and his life-saver with this caption: “My hero and good friend, Dr. Bud Shaw.”

Redford regained his health and produced a documentary, The Kindness of Strangers, raising awareness of the need for organ donation. Redford and Shaw saw each other just last year.

“Jamie and I did something at the Sundance Authors Series. I did a reading of my book and then Jamie came up and we sat on a couple stools and we did a kind of give-and-take with each other and people asked questions. Bob (Robert Redford) was there and Jamie’s sister was there. It was standing-room-only.”

But in his essay Real Surgeons Can’t Cry Shaw divulges how he didn’t cope well with the hero worship showed him. For him, surgery was a job to be gotten through, a task to be completed. The human dimensions of it sometimes escaped him or made him uncomfortable, and so he avoided those implications and interactions that required emotional investment.

Taxing times in the crowded OR give way to one-on-one writing-editing critiques 

A transplant operation is always complex and requires a team of professionals/ But these were far riskier procedures in the 1980s and 1990s then they are today because there weren’t the techniques and drugs available then that there are now.

“The longest one in my experience was in Pittsburgh that was 27 hours,” Shaw recalled. “In that case it was a child. When we started out trying to open the abdomen it was like concrete. We had to go ahead and get the liver in there because its time out of the donor’s body was getting too high. We didn’t want it to die – the liver would be nonfunctional. So we put it in and then we had all this sorting out of stuff to do for hours and hours, trying to get the bleeding stopped.

“What would happen is the patient’s own body would start dissolving its clots. That was a pretty common feature of a liver transplant.”

The operating room is a collaborative, dynamic environment of high risk and high reward. Writing, by contrast, is a solitary experience whose rewards are more internal then external. Shaw values having a life partner in Rotert who is a fellow writer. They share everything they write with each other.

“We are our own best editors,” he said. “I think I take her criticism of what I write a lot better than she takes my criticism about what she writes, and I don’t know if that’s because her criticism is more gently delivered because she’s not very gentle with it. But for some reason whatever she tells me often rings so true.

“LIke with these initial essays I wrote, I wasn’t sure what they were really about and she helped me figure out what they were really about.”

He admires her craftsmanship.

“She really writes incredibly well. She writes some beautiful sentences. She also develops characters incredibly well, each with different voices. She’s really a master at that sort of thing.”

The couple live in a multi-story home on the edge of Neale Woods. Books, magazines, paintings (by her) and photographs (by him) adorn the rustic-chic living spaces whose large windows look out on the Missouri River basin and bluffs to the east and pristine forested land to the west.

 

 

Reinventing himself

Idyllic surroundings and professional accolades aren’t salves for the demons inside us as Shaw discovered. Even at the height of his career, politics and egos found him fighting external battles. He eventually became chairman of surgery at the Med Center and after 12 years in that post he headed-up a large point-of-care software development project that got canceled.

He’s felt a bit adrift since retiring from surgery and then having that software project killed.

“There’s almost nothing like having a really difficult job to do with a lot riding on it and you’re afraid going in about what might happen but you do it anyway and you succeed and everything’s okay. It just so happens that liver transplants is one of the best things like that. And so I lost that reward system. The other thing I lost was every day somebody telling me what to do. Even when i was chairman of the department. It’s not like I had to say what am i going to do today? There was always stuff to do and too much to do.

“Not having that and having so called free time to write and to do other stuff was initially fun and easy but the longer it’s lasted the more difficult it’s become

finding reward.”

While a practicing surgeon he once thought of leaving that career to write full-time but he wasn’t crazy or brave enough to try it. “Doing liver transplants is easier.”

Ever the voyager, Shaw has worlds yet to explore in his travels and in his new vocation as author, Having finally given himself permission to write about his past, he’s embracing new adventures as source material for future tales. With so much to draw on, his creative well should never run dry.

UNMC makes international eye care a priority through Global Blindness Prevention work: Giving the gift of sight to the world

March 17, 2015 Leave a comment

There was a chance of me going to Nepal in February to accompany Omaha ophthalmologist Dr. Michael Feilmeir and a team of doctors and residents who perform hundreds of eye surgeries there, mostly to remove cataracts.  I met the good doctor preparing this story for Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/) and when I informed him of my interest in doing some international reporting he and his wife Jessica, who does development work for the Global Blindness Prevention Division he heads up at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, encouraged me to join the winter trip he was leading to that Himalyan land.  In  applying for an international journalism grant offered by my alma mater, the University of Nebraska at Omaha, I proposed making one or the other of two trips: traveling with that medical mission team to Nepal or going to Africa with world lightweight boxing champion Terence Crawford of Omaha.  I had no real expectation of getting the grant, which goes by the name The Andy Award.  As it turned out, I did get it but it was awarded too late for me to join the group going to Nepal.  However, I will be traveling to Rwanda and Uganda, Africa in June.  Much more to come on that.  For now, read about the good works of Feilmeier and Co. in giving the gift of sight to people who otherwise would either remain blind or go blind.

 

UNMC makes international eye care a priority through Global Blindness Prevention Work

Giving the gift of sight to the world

Global medical missions and fellowships making a difference

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/)

 

It is no play on words to say the leaders of the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Global Blindness Prevention Division and its professional home, the Stanley M. Truhlsen Eye Institute, share a big vision.

The personnel behind these endeavors want nothing less than to create an army of well-trained international eye physicians to retain addressing preventable blindness around the world.

This cadre of care is already providing international ophthalmology training and surgical opportunities to a next generation of eye physicians. Teams of medical students, residents and physicians are going to remote places and giving the gift of sight to hundreds of patients during weeks-long medical mission trips to developing nations on different continents. Global Blindness Prevention Fellows are spending a year or more overseas learning how to deal with complex vision problems, training local eye medical professionals and performing life-altering procedures.

In some instances eye physicians from the developing world are coming to Omaha for advanced training and clinical research unavailable in their home countries.

Taken together, this international focus is extending its reach wherever people are in need.

 

picture disc.

Returning sight and much more

For the Omaha ophthalmologists leading this charge, making a difference beyond borders brings personal and professional satisfaction. Dr. Michael Feilmeier, medical director of the Global Blindness Prevention Division, was a fourth year medical student at UNMC when he got his first international ophthalmology experience. He’d already had his eyes opened to the “incredible need throughout the world for well-trained health care providers” on trips to Nicaragua and Belize. But his passion for global blindness prevention was stoked when he joined the Himalayan Cataract Project of Dr. Geoffrey Tabin.

He spent several weeks in Nepal assisting Tabin and his team give sight to people who’d hiked in from long distances. Over and over again he witnessed people’s lives changed by a short, inexpensive procedure that saw people come in blind and walk out sighted.
The impact of it all, Feilmeier says, “hit me like a lightning bolt.”

“When you take the patient’s patch off after surgery they just kind of light up,” he says. “This person who was previously maybe an empty shell of themselves kind of fills up and comes back to life. So for me it was like, This is it, this is how I want to spend a major part of my career.”

There and on subsequent trips to Haiti he’s observed parents regain sight and thus be able to see their children for the first time and he’s witnessed children’s lives turned around by sight restoring surgery.

“Being a parent I understand that joy of parents seeing their child or having their child get the health care they need. Those are the stories that resonate most with me. You could put together an amazing book of stories of the life changing transformations of people undergoing cataract surgery. We always ask patients the question, ‘What are you going to do now that your sight’s restored?’ It’s amazing the way people respond. The overwhelming majority say, ‘I want to work, I want to contribute.'”

Gaining a new perpspective
The experiences, Feilmeier says, “changed me a great deal,” adding, “We all have these pivotal moments in our lives and going to Nepal was one. It really changed the course of my life forever. It changed the trajectory of my life at a very young age and I’m grateful for that. It changed my perspective in a lot of ways.

“Obviously it makes you appreciative of what you have. It makes you realize your problems are so small relatively speaking to the problems of the majority of people who live in the world.”

Feilmeier’s wife Jessica accompanied him on trips to Nepal, Ghana, Haiti and the Dominican Republic and their experiences overseas compelled them to form the Division in 2011 with the help of donations. She’s development director for the Division.

“I was struck by here’s this major component of human suffering that we haven’t cured that costs about 20 dollars and can be done in about 5 minutes and can be taken anywhere in the world,” Michael Feilmeier says.

“I always knew I was fortunate to grow up in the U.S., but never realized how truly blessed I was compared to the rest of the world,” Jessica says. “I never knew the conditions that individuals living needlessly blind faced each day and the knowledge I gained from witnessing their struggles to complete the simple tasks we take for granted: walk unassisted to a bathroom, navigate across a busy street or meet the gaze of a laughing child changed me in the most profound way. I came to understand my true capacity in terms of what I could be doing personally and professionally to see that as few people as possible lived their lives in needless darkness.”

A broadened perspective is exactly what Dr. Quan Nguyen, professor and chair of opthalmology and director of the Truhlsen Eye Institute, endorses. He and his physician wife, Diana Do, came here from Johns Hopkins University with years of international medical travel behind them. Do serves as vice chair for education at the Institute.

Nguyen says, “We as physicians should recognize when we treat patients the care of the patient not only depends on the surgical-medical skills of the physician but also on the ability to incorporate the social-economic needs of the patient in order to achieve a successful outcome. I think that is the most valuable lesson for our residents, trainees and fellows when they travel like this. I truly believe the most important experience of traveling like this is to be able to gain additional perspective of what other people need so we can serve them.

“Yes, they will also have opportunities to operate on a number of patients and to enhance their own surgical skills but I think the most important aspect, which I hope is a lifetime experience for them, is to recognize and remember what the people there value and need. Then when they return home they can be advocates to help these people.”

Global reach
The ongoing program aligned perfectly with the arrival of Nguyen and his expanded vision for the Department of Opthalmology by way of the international mission he’s put in place at the Truhlsen Eye Institute, which opened last year. A large photographic mural entitled “The Gift of Sight” in the center’s lobby dramatically expresses that global reach and the work being done by entities and individuals to prevent blindness. It pictures patients whose sight was restored and physicians who performed the surgeries.

“In the past. global eye care has never been a focus of the department,” Nguyen says. “The Truhlsen Eye Institute was founded on the basis of not only serving the citizens of Neb. but patients from every corner of the world with the best possible eye care. To do so we must first demonstrate our expertise and our mission in education to bring people over and to train them.

“We would like to make it a place that serves patients wherever they live in the world. Whether it’s global or local, our goal is to preserve vision, prevent blindness and restore sight to people of different economic and social backgrounds.”

UNMC is doing that in several ways, One is by sending teams to high-need areas where they can directly benefit individual patients through what Feilmeier’s calls “blitzes” of intense, concentrated surgical visits.

Nguyen says, “We are at the same time training eye physicians and surgeons who can continue with our mission long after we have left a specific country because we know it is not possible for just a group of physicians and surgeons from Omaha to be able to prevent blindness across the globe or even in one country, So we know that as part of our mission teaching is very important to be able to train the next generation of surgeons and eye physicians to carry on the work.

“We look for how do we spread the disciples from the Truhlsen Eye Institute in Omaha across the globe.”

A blitz may also impact underserved populations right in our own backyard. For example, the Division regularly provides eye services to Native Americans in Omaha.

Collaboration with local partners is key to ensure high quality eye care continues after visiting teams leave. Before a team ever arrives, locals get the word out about their coming and do screenings.

“Your success in a country depends not upon how much you want to do there and how much money you have, it’s who your local partners are,” Michael Feilmeier says. “So we continue to search for good in-country local partners – young, motivated people who work together as a team and who have good skill sets. We’ve found those in all of the places we’ve worked so far. We’re really fortunate.”

 

Paying it forward
Feilmeier wanted to create a vehicle for aspiring or emerging eye care physicians to have the same experiences he did overseas and thus the Global Blindness Prevention Division came about.

“We work with people at different levels in their training,” Feilmeier says. “For medical students we’ve developed a one-month rotation similar to what I did. We arrange everything for them for their experience in Nepal. They spend a month in Kathmandu. They’re mostly observing and feeding off the experience.

“In residency we take the third-year residents for one or two weeks abroad to actually engage in screening the patients, doing the surgery and being part of the whole process. Our two fellowship programs are for people who have graduated from residency. They spend a full year or a full two years working abroad. So at different points in the training process we can engage people.”

For Feilmeier, it’s paying forward his own eye-opening experiences.

“I look at the opportunity someone gave me to engage in this kind of work and how it changed my life forever. My main focus is becoming more about engaging other people and making it easy for them to have an opportunity like that themselves because it will have the same impact on everybody who gets a chance to experience it. It will influence their life and career.

“I’ve never met a single person who did a medical mission who didn’t want to do another one. Then you think about the ripple effect that those people have and all of a sudden you have this army of people who are aware of this problem and who care about this problem and who are actively engaged in dealing with it and finding solutions.”

Count Dr. Shane Havens a member of that army. As a senior resident he went to Cap-Hatien, Haiti in 2013 as part of a team led by Feilmeier.

He had one “touching experience” after another with patients overjoyed at getting their sight. back.

“A lot of times it gives them their life back.”

Feilmeier says, “It’s just really remarkable the amount of faith the patients put in the whole process and the emotional transition and transformation of patients and their family – seeing people laugh and dance and cry.”

Or in the case of one young man who regained his sight at the hands of Feilmeier and Havens, picking up his two surgeons in celebration.

Aside from the emotions elicited, Haven says a mission “offers you invaluable, unparalleled training experiences in the operating room and clinic you just cant get from a textbook or any training program,” adding, “I think the skill set it takes to manage the mature or complex cataract we see there really benefits the patients we treat back here.”

On these trips, Feilmeier says, “you really get out of your comfort zone in a new environment and you really test the limits of your abilities. You learn to have a new set of tools in your tool box. The most beneficial surgical training I have is when I’m sort of tested and I don’t have everything I’m used to having.” It means adapting to rough conditions, even operating by flashlight when electricity and generators go out.

Havens says opthalmology is “a ready-made speciality” for international medical service “because it’s one of the few where you can go for a trip of a week or two weeks and maximize your clinical experience and leave a lasting impact.”

Feilmeier feels the earlier people have these international experiences the better.

“We want to make a difference early on in careers. I think that’s probably the most impact we can have. I could sit at the scope 13 hours a day and do thousands of cataracts but ultimately I think it’s far more impactful when you engage young people. It’s about having that experience and feeling it in your heart and soul.”

 

 

Fellows and funders
The Global Blindness Prevention Fellowships are unique. The newest is in partnership with Orbis International, an NGO dedicated to saving sight worldwide.

“There’s been two Fellows thus far,” he says. “Starting next year we’ll hopefully have two per year, maybe even three per year, all working full-time in developing nations. The two-year fellowship with Orbis will be started July 2015. With that one we’re trying to groom some of the next generation of leaders in public health and global eye care. Fellows get a certificate in public health after completing it. They spend five months with us and seven months on the Orbis Flying Hospital – a fully functional, state-of-the-art operating theater – and they travel around the world for a year. It’s just sort of the next level of being involved from a global standpoint

“We want the Fellows to see things they’ve never read about, they’ve never dreamed of seeing. We want them to expand their skill sets and to experience things they would never see here in the U.S.”

Nguyen says it’s the only fellowship of its kind in the world. He and Feilmeier say there’s strong interest in both fellowships from applicants around the country.

Sustaining these international efforts requires financial support. The Global Division is an unfunded arm of UNMC, therefore the Feilmeiers work hard to find donors. Two fundraisers help. The annual Bike for Sight charity ride in April is growing in popularity. A Night for Sight celebrates the life-changing work of these global initiatives. The Oct. 25 event staged a Masquerade Ball for guests.

The Feilmeiers volunteer their time with the Division, covering all their own hard costs (food, travel, lodging) in order to give 100 percent of donated funds to curing blindness.

“We’ve made a pledge that for every $20 we receive, the cost of the consumables, we will give one free surgery to someone living needlessly blind and fortunately the community of Omaha has supported us and donated generously, which has allowed us to perform 1,000 free surgeries to date,” Jessica Feilmeier says.

“Our overall goal would be some type of endowment with naming rights to the Division,” Michael Feilmeier says. “If we could come up with a million to a million and a half dollars in endowment that would secure what we want to do over the course of time. We want to provide eye care to people who desperately need it, assist in training opportunities for international ophthalmologists in sub-Saharan Africa or Asia or Haiti to enhance their skills. And we want to provide these opportunities to medical students, residents and fellows because it’s expensive to get involved in this type of work and you never want that to be a limiting factor.”

The next Bike for Sight is April 25. Follow UNMC’s global eye care efforts and events at http://www.unmc.edu/eye/international.htm.

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