Taking a Year (of a Lifetime) Off

The following is a guest post by UNMC third-year medical student Eric Nagengast.

Eric Nagengast-small

For the past eight months, one of the hardest questions for me to answer has been, “Where do you live?”

In this time, I’ve spent two months in Rwanda, three months in Boston, one month in India and the rest of the time between Nebraska, Colombia and a few other countries.

Since I’m a medical student, people wonder how I’m able to spend so much time away from school. I’m able to travel because I took a leave of absence from medical school between my third and fourth years.

Yes, it may seem crazy, but I actually agreed to put an extra year between myself and the elusive M.D. because I am spending this year as a Paul Farmer Global Surgery Research Associate with the Program in Global Surgery and Social Change (PGSSC) at Harvard Medical School.

At PGSSC, we believe safe surgery is a right that all humans should have. Through research, advocacy and clinical assistance, PGSSC strives to bring safe surgery to the people of low- and middle-income countries.

Historically, surgical care has largely been left out of global health priorities. So our battle is not an easy one.  Our group is composed of physicians from the affiliated Harvard hospitals, fellows, residents, students and support staff from multiple schools, countries and continents.

 I am writing this post 30,000 feet above the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, four hours into a 14-hour flight from Newark to Delhi, the major leg of what is bound to be around a 30-hour trip to Guwahati, India.

In the last six months, I have grown accustomed to spending large chunks of time in airports and airplanes. One can actually get a lot done crammed between a couple of strangers for hours with no contact with the outside world (that is, of course, once one has seen every movie the in-flight entertainment has to offer).

Along with traveling, I also have grown accustomed to leaving the luxuries of the western world behind (such as hot water and easy access to food), and I am actually looking forward to my next few months abroad.


Nagengast with children at a refugee camp in Rwanda for those from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In India, my team and I are working on a number of research projects in joint partnership with Operation Smile, an international cleft-care organization. Through these projects, we hope to give a voice to the voiceless. We hope to show the great need there is for surgical care throughout the world, and we hope to show this need can be treated in a cost-effective and safe manner.

While I am in Guwahati, I will be lucky enough to scrub in to cleft surgery with some of the world’s greatest cleft surgeons. For a medical student with the goal of becoming a plastic surgeon, this experience is a dream come true.


Nagengast (left) assists Dr. Bill Magee on a cleft palate surgery at the Operation Smile Guwahati Comprehensive Cleft Care Center in India. Dr. Magee is Operation Smile chief executive and co-founder.

could not share my story without thanking those who have supported me and helped make my experience possible. In particular, I would like to thank my family and everyone behind the Nellie House Craven Scholarship.

This year is undoubtedly the best year of my life. I have met the most amazing people, I have seen the most amazing things, and I now have a vision of what I would like to do with my future. Most importantly, I am the happiest I have ever been.

I will return to UNMC a better clinician, a better researcher and a better person. I hope my story inspires more UNMC students to consider taking less traditional paths toward their degrees.  


Stay tuned for my next post on a day in my life in Guwahati, India.

CON honors, remembers those lost

You just wanted to hug those kids.

Tommy, 10. A good boy, glowing, talking about his dad’s job, and jets. “Tommy can tell you about any plane around,” said his grandfather, Tom Blake.

Lily, 8. An angel (literally; she’d just danced in the Nutcracker) in a purple snow hat with hearts on it, and sparkly boots. When her brother blabbed about how she sometimes forgets names, she leaned in, stepped on his foot and gave him a look. That little-sister-to-big-brother look.

“She was born 19 days after our boy was killed,” her grandfather said.

The Blake kids, Tommy and Lily, pictured earlier in front of a display honoring their father, Navy Pilot Lt. Com. Thomas Blake, bottom left. In a coincidence, the other serviceman honored by the College of Nursing, Staff Sgt. Tricia Jameson, is in another of the photos, top left.

The Blake kids, Tommy and Lily, pictured at an earlier memorial display honoring their father, Navy Pilot Lt. Com. Thomas Blake, bottom left. In a coincidence, the other serviceman recently honored by the College of Nursing, Staff Sgt. Tricia Jameson, is also among these photos, top left.

“Your daddy helped make you before you were born,” her grandmother, Carole Blake, told her as she gave Lily a squeeze. “He and your mama picked out your name.”

Navy Pilot Lt. Com. Thomas Blake

Navy Pilot Lt. Com. Thomas Blake

Their mama is Jessica Blake, today a UNMC nursing student. On this morning, her Policy and Leadership class was different. The class – her class – was presenting her with an Honor and Remember flag.

Navy Pilot Lt. Com. Thomas Blake died in an S-3B Viking jet crash in Jacksonville, Fla., in 2005. He was 33. He left behind a wife, a son and a daughter he never got to meet.

The flags are a relatively new movement, started by a father who lost a son. The flags go to the families of U.S. servicemen who died “in the line of duty.” The flags have been officially adopted by 16 states, the charity’s website says, and have been “endorsed” by eight more (Nebraska is among those still being lobbied). They don’t come cheap. The UNMC College of Nursing Policy and Leadership class raised $700 for two.

The other went to Pat Jameson, a nurse, and the mother of Tricia Jameson, who had always wanted to be one.

While she applied to nursing school, Tricia, a staff sergeant, was serving as a full-time health care specialist for the Nebraska National Guard. She carried a medical bag in her car, in case she came across any accidents. She taught combat lifesaver training to Nebraska Guard troops. When an opportunity came up to deploy to Iraq herself, she jumped to the front of the line.

Today, Nick Hornig is a UNMC nursing student. In 2005, he was in the 313th Medical Company (Grounded Ambulance) in the Nebraska Guard, in Iraq, when Tricia showed up, a replacement. He helped her unload her bags.

Nebraska Guard medic Staff Sgt. Tricia Jameson

Nebraska Guard medic Staff Sgt. Tricia Jameson

She was the new kid; he barely knew her. She’d been with them for about three weeks when, out on the Humvee ambulance, she and her driver came across a convoy of Marines that had been hit by an improvised explosive device (IED) attack. There were casualties.

She was racing to the rescue when she was killed by another IED.

“It could have been any of us,” Nick said.

At that time it seemed like something like that was happening every day.

She was engaged to be married. She was 34.

When called to come up to accept her flag, Tricia’s mother took a breath and closed her eyes: steeling herself.

As she stood up there, Nick held his face, rubbed his hands and fought off the tears that welled in his eyes.

He’d barely known Tricia, but he knew this: he’d made it home to nursing school and she had not.

Tricia's mom, Pat, displays the flag presented her by UNMC nursing students with volunteer Cliff Leach.

Tricia’s mom, Pat, displays the flag presented her by UNMC nursing students with volunteer Cliff Leach.

When he heard about the flags, he’d asked his classmates if they could make this happen, for Tricia, and together, they had. Keyon Royster said that Jessica should get one, too. Kate Weidemann organized a bake sale.

With Tricia’s mom, Nick was tender. It could have been him.

It could have been any of them.

Those kids. Tommy, 10, and Lily, 8. Their faces said this was a good day. They got to hear about how great their dad had been. They beamed as they held up that flag.

But those other faces – those of Jessica, and Carole, and Tom, of Tricia’s mom, Pat – those were the ones that all but knocked you to your knees.

The audible sniffles in the auditorium said they were not alone in their tears.

These people had been wounded beyond endurance, and yet, somehow, they endured. There they were. Standing.

UNMC nursing student Jessica Blake, third from left, holds a flag that honors her husband, Thomas, a Navy pilot who died in the line of duty. With her are her husband's parents, Carole and Tom, and her children, Tommy and Lily.

UNMC nursing student Jessica Blake, third from left, holds a flag that honors her husband, Thomas, a Navy pilot who died in the line of duty. With her are her husband’s parents, Carole and Tom, and her children, Tommy and Lily.

And when it came time to click a picture, Jessica brushed the tears, lifted her head, looked right into the camera. And smiled.

Later, in the hallway, Jessica ran into Nick, her nursing school classmate, the guy who had the idea to do this to honor the fallen teammate he’d barely known.

She grabbed his arm. “Thank you,” she said. “That was really cool.”

She laughed at having made something for the bake sale, not yet knowing, at that point, one of the flags was to be for her.

And then, they were late. She was heading back into the classroom and Nick not far behind. They had a test to take. The flag ceremony was over. Quick as that, class was starting again.

Nursing school, much like life, keeps moving forward. And you remember, and smile bravely, and carry on the best you can.

There IS such a thing as a free lunch

We’ve all heard the phrase “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” At UNMC, though, that’s debatable. There’s always something going on over the lunch hour, and most of the time, it’s free. Sometimes lunch is even included, SO THERE, whoever came up with the above phrase.

Recently, I was able to attend not one, not two, but THREE lunch sessions in the same week in which I learned something I could take back to my desk. And I could have attended two more events, had they not been scheduled on the same day at the same time as others.

The first was the “Superwoman is a Myth” brown bag lecture hosted by the Olson Center on Tuesday. There I learned that woman tend to feel guilty if they can’t do it all (can I get an amen?), while men tend to blame others (I’m quoting the speaker here, guys).

Sondra Dubas, owner and founder of Miracle Heart Books, was forced to stop running the rat race when her 6-year-old daughter, Ashley, suffered a stroke during surgery for a congenital heart defect. Ashley was born without a pulmonary valve in her heart. Prior to surgery, Dubas looked at it as another event on the calendar, something to get done and cross off her list. When things didn’t go as planned, her life became only about her daughter and getting her better (Ashley’s doing great now).

Dubas learned to say “no” to things that weren’t important to her, focus on “being” rather than “doing” and live “on purpose.” She stopped trying to be “superwoman” and instead became the best version of herself. She urged attendees not to wait for trauma to happen before doing the same.


Wednesday, I went to a Learn at Lunch put on by HR. Though it was titled “Uniting the Diverse,” the speaker from White Rabbit Group focused on branding. While some still think of the UNMC brand as just our logo or the tagline “Breakthroughs for Life,” Mike Wagner had a more open-ended definition.

Branding is “what people remember when they remember you,” he said. He talked about the different kinds of brands: adversarial (think cell phone/cable companies), indifference (fast food restaurants), friendly, but tend to overpromise and under-deliver (car care, anyone?) and focused (where the company anticipates your wants and needs, like Zappos’ surprise upgrade shipping feature).

While we in PR can do everything in our power to build our brand image, Wagner pointed out that the real brand of UNMC lies in the people – all the people. This, my friend, means you, too.


On Thursday, I’d signed up for a session titled “Running the Catch-Up-I-Don’t-Have Enough-Time Race,” also hosted by the Olson Center. How did I know this was something I needed to attend? Well, I showed up 15 minutes late, not realizing it started at 11:30 and not noon.

Jennifer Bartlett, a certified professional organizer, had our group draw how we spend our days on a pie chart. She then asked us to write down our priorities and see if the two matched up. Newsflash: They didn’t, and I’m guessing yours don’t always line up either.

I had on paper that my marriage and health are two of my top priorities, but in reality, I make little effort to schedule dates with my husband without our two rugrats in tow, and I don’t think I have time for exercise even though I always find time for Facebook.

Bartlett then offered tips on how to marry the pie chart with the priority list by:

-using the “no” word;
-setting timers for activities;
-not compromising on sleep; and
-scheduling “me-time”.

My Day in 24 Hours

Since the session ended before I expected it to, I stopped down to the first floor of the DOC and briefly listened to “I, the Siren,” an Omaha Chamber Music Society trio performing as part of the Music and Medicine series. It was a great way to cap off lunch hour, free of charge.


Check the UNMC calendar  to find out what’s going on around campus over lunch hours and throughout the day.