What It's Like

Shot by an arrow, 8-year-old Aryanna Schneeberg owes her life to Dr. John Densmore. FIVE doctors share their tales of a day on the job.

PHOTOGRAPHY BY DAN BISHOP

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What it’s Like to Remove an Arrow from a Child
As told by Dr. John Densmore

Dr. John Densmore
Pediatric Surgeon, Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin
Assistant Professor, Medical College of Wisconsin 

Surreal. That’s how I would describe what it was like removing a hunting arrow from a child’s back.  A 7-year-old girl is pushing her doll in a stroller down the sidewalk and — boom — an arrow comes speeding out of nowhere slicing through her torso.

When we opened her up, the tip of the arrow was looking up at me through the little girl’s liver. I thought, “I’ve never seen this before and probably never will again.” I thought about the recent movie release of “The Hunger Games” and hoped this had nothing to do with it.

The arrow shot through the little girl’s spleen, stomach, left lung and liver, skewering them like a shish kebab. Removing it would leave deadly holes that could leak air, blood or bacteria. 

I had to come up with a surgical plan — and fast. First, we cut the arrow flush with her skin so our patient could safely be placed on her back. We put a drain around her left lung to compensate for air that would bubble up and out of the holes. Poised with a space-age coagulator, I carefully lifted each of her vital organs off of the sharp arrow and closed the holes, preserving all organs. Through it all, our young patient was a shining example of the strength of human resolve.

I handle the stress of my job by swimming and with the help of a great family, my church and a wonderful medical team. What keeps me coming back is the challenge of achieving lifetime cures and the covenant with the families we treat. Often, we build a profound relationship with the children and their parents in a few moments, asking for their complete trust in our surgical team. Their bravery and devotion inspire me every day.


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What it’s Like Turning Bad News into Hope
As told by Dr. Alysandra Lal

Dr. Alysandra Lal
General, Oncologic and Vascular Surgeon,
Columbia St. Mary’s Hospital Ozaukee

As a surgeon specializing in oncology, my job is to take bad news and turn it into hope. It is possible with empathy, information, options and a plan.

One of my patients had been trying to get pregnant for a long time. She was so excited when her first child was born and then she discovered a lump in her breast while nursing her baby. The happiest time in her life was abruptly interrupted. She wondered, “Will I live to see my baby grow up?” We started her treatment with Tamoxifen right away, but for medical reasons we had to wait six weeks before we could perform surgery. That is a lot of time to wrestle with fear.

In reality people with early stage breast, colon and thyroid cancers do well. So, I listened intently to my patient’s concerns, gave her solid information and discussed her options. The more she knew, the stronger she felt. Waiting was much easier with hope. After having a lumpectomy, chemotherapy and radiation she is now back at work, chasing a toddler and volunteering with a nonprofit cancer group.

I knew I wanted to pursue medicine after volunteering at a women’s health clinic in college. I felt a great connection with the patients. My first rotation in surgery was like falling in love. My heart would beat faster knowing I could “fix things” in the operating room. Then I started to see my own patients and witnessed the power of the human spirit.

With hope, I have seen cancer patients find a renewed joy for life, distant families make amends, and patients become community leaders in cancer-related charities and support groups. And I discovered that fear and anger don’t stand a chance in the face of hope.


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What it’s Like to Reconstruct a Child’s Face
As told by Dr. Michael Sweet

Dr. Michael Sweet
Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeon,
Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare 

I was a junior resident at a rural hospital when anxious parents of a 6-year-old girl came rushing iN. Her face had been ripped apart by a vicious dog. There was a winter storm that night. The closest plastic surgeon was hours away and the roads were impassable. I had done a round in the burn unit and plastic surgery so I felt I could do the repair, still it was daunting to think about how my work would influence the way she presented herself to the world for the rest of her life.    

I did the hardest repair first. Because there’s a color border on the lip, if you are off by a millimeter there will be a visible notch left behind. The lips are also functional, so you have to make sure the layers of tissue are put together correctly. When I finished, the parents were extremely gracious and thankful. That’s when I started giving serious thought to pursuing plastic surgery.

I love how the surgical field keeps evolving, offering more options for patients. For example, I’ve been able to incorporate innovative surgical techniques to minimize incisions and preserve tissue when reconstructing a breast after a mastectomy. The results are much improved and give my patients their best chance yet at moving ahead with confidence.

My grandparents taught me a lot about life. They were working-class Italians with huge hearts. Instead of thinking about what they wanted or lacked, they would focus on helping other people. 

So, I try to help my patients feel comfortable in their own skin. They might have a physical deformity from cancer, a terrible burn, an accident or mishap, or maybe they want to look as young as they feel. I am humbled by their strength in the face of challenge and feel honored to help them in my own way.


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What it’s Like to Save Someone from a Heart Attack
As told by Dr. Michael Cinquegrani

Dr. Michael Cinquegrani
Director of the Heart & Vascular Center,
Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin 

In the open of “60 Minutes” there is a stopwatch that’s always ticking. When I respond to a patient with a massive heart attack I am reminded of the stopwatch because I am always working against the clock. 

When the patient arrives at the ER, we have 90 minutes to get them into the Cath Lab and open their clogged artery or their chance of a full recovery significantly drops.
So, my pager goes off and I rush to the hospital. I walk into the patient’s room and the fear is palpable. The patient knows something bad is happening and so does the family. I have just enough time to tell them we understand the problem and can fix it.

When I started practicing cardiology 27 years ago, that wasn’t always the case. The patient’s chances of a complete recovery without residual effects were slim. Today interventional cardiology, known as catheterization, gives my patients a great chance at a full and healthy future.  

In the Cath Lab, I access an artery through the patient’s groin or arm and thread a catheter up to where the vessel is blocked. Through the catheter I inflate a small balloon that opens the artery. Often I end up putting a stent in the artery to keep it open.

At Froedtert & The Medical College of Wisconsin, teamwork allows us to best the gold standard of 90 minutes by accomplishing everything in about 60 minutes; a fast response can lead to better outcomes, my favorite part. When a patient returns for an office visit and tells me about the joy of celebrating a child’s wedding or a special anniversary, that’s when it hits me, how much I love my job.


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What it’s Like to Deliver a Baby
As told by Dr. Kari Oliver

Dr. Kari Oliver
Obstetrician and Gynecologist, ProHealth Care

There’s a lot to think about when delivering a baby and it’s a happy relief when the child is tucked away in mom’s arms.

The first time I delivered a baby I was a medical student, and I couldn’t believe how fast he came out and how slippery the newborn was. I had to move in with my whole body to make sure I didn’t drop him.

You have to be ready for anything during labor and delivery. As I checked the cervix of one patient, who complained about early pressure, I felt the umbilical cord and knew we had an emergency. If the head comes down on top of the cord, it can cut off the oxygen supply and the baby could die. The nursing team immediately called the pediatrician, anesthesiologist, surgical assistant and tech, and we went straight to the C-section room. We put the patient under general anesthesia and had the baby delivered in short order. I am happy to say she woke up to a beautiful and healthy baby boy.  

When things go well, it’s really fun. On one occasion, I invited a dad to deliver the baby. His wife was having her third child and was ready for her final push. I guided her husband’s hands to maneuver the baby’s head and shoulders and helped support his baby girl as he pulled her out. I remembered my first delivery and guessed he wouldn’t know how slippery a newborn is either!

It’s a privilege when parents allow me to be part of this intimate and wonderful time, and a treat to hear a mom introduce me to her young child years later as “the first person who ever held you.”


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