The beginning

The practice ice rink looks like the graduation area.

DSC_0312There are rows of chairs for the graduates. There is a podium. There are even seats on one side, though not nearly enough to seat all the friends and family who are expected.

Still, the room looks official enough that one graduate, gown draped over her arm and a cap in one hand, asks “Is this where the ceremony is?”

It’s not.

UNMC’s official commencement ceremony was held May 10 at the Ralston Arena, on the main floor, where the Lancers hockey and UNO basketball games take place. This room, a practice area located just below and behind the arena gift shop, was the staging area, where, a half-hour before the ceremony starts, Barbara Breazeale and Janet McLaughlin are trying to wrangle more than 450 graduates.

“It’s our second year at the Ralston Arena,” Breazeale said. “We’re still trying to tweak things.”

Right from the start, some tweaking is needed. The seats have been sectioned into areas A and B, but the signs have been switched, so the students who have actually taken their seats – by college and in alphabetical order – are all in the wrong place.

“We always have interesting things pop up,” Breazeale said.

As the two consult lists – who is here, and who isn’t coming, and who’s supposed to be coming but hasn’t yet? – the students gather in groups, pose for photos and adjust their caps and gowns. The clear fiberglass that would serve as protection for the audience during hockey practice doubles nicely as a reflective surface, where hair can be checked or makeup fine-tuned.

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Kate Weidemann and William Warner

Nursing graduate Kate Weidemann is adjusting classmate William Warner’s tassel as the two wait in their seats.

“I’m a non-traditional student,” Warner said. “I’m 41-years-old, and this is the completion of my first bachelor’s degree. Getting that degree in my hand means everything.”

Rob Bowen is getting his M.D.

“Graduation is a good opportunity for our family to come and see us,” he said. “It’s the end of something, but it’s the beginning of a lot.”

Ernie Sigler, D.D.S., and John Reinhardt, D.D.S., are lined up in a hallway behind the arena floor, academically garbed and waiting to make the walk into the main arena. The two are smiling as they talk to each other, obviously happy to be part of the Omaha ceremony, as well.

“They work so hard, it’s almost like they can’t believe it’s over,” said Dr. Reinhardt, “It’s great to assure them that they’re ready to face the world, and it’s great because we get to see their parents again – to have them come for a special celebration like this is really nice.”

By 9 a.m., everyone in the practice rink is ready. McLaughlin and other Student Services staff have the students seated in the proper sections and in alphabetical order by school. No-shows have been identified. It’s go time.

At the signal, the graduates rise and, behind two red-garbed marshalls, they troop out of the practice rink.

From the arena floor – from the real graduation area – the music starts.

It’s the beginning.

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Entering the arena for the ceremony.

 

Surgical Boot Camp at UNMC

(To the tune of Piano Man)

It’s 9 o’clock on a Friday morn. The regular crew shuffles in.

They’ve all matched into residencies, but just before they begin:

Chickew…record scratch: BOOT CAMP.

A three and a half-week, elective course for M4s to hone their surgical skills just before graduation.

Did I mention it was optional? And that all 20 UNMC students who matched into surgical specialties opted to do it?

boot campers

Here are the overachievers with boot camp organizer Dr. Wendy Grant on the far left. Surgical Resident and Alex Trebek wannabe, Dr. Jeff Carson, is on the far right. On the first day, Dr. Grant buys them camouflage hats and labels them with the students’ last names. They can wear the hats during the month, but Dr. Grant asks for them back just before the end. On the last day of boot camp, she returns the hats back with “Dr.” before their last name.

They could be sleeping in, going out, traveling abroad, goofing off, wandering around, but they’re not.

They’re in the basement of the cadaver lab, tying knots on the incisions of donor bodies. Knot after knot after knot so that when called upon to suture in the operating room, they don’t freeze. Start to shake. Or worst-case scenario: get passed over from someone who does know how.

Surgical boot camp, now in its third year, was designed by Wendy Grant, M.D., from the Department of Surgery. She organized it to give UNMC students a leg up (or would it be a hand?) when they begin their careers as doctors later this year.

“Knot tying is the most basic, fundamental surgical skill,” Dr. Grant said. “If everyone who comes through here can be called on to tie a knot on their first day, whether it’s right-handed or left-handed, they’re ahead of the curve.”

You won’t catch Dr. Grant barking at students to “drop and give her 20” knots, but instead sketching a pancreas on the white board and peeking over the scrub-donned shoulders of her students with pride.

Thanks to those who donate their bodies to science, this course gives students the most accurate representation of what tissue will feel like in the operating room. Ortho students focus on the bones and joints. Obstetricians and gynecologists zero in on the uterus. ENTs and neurosurgeons concentrate on the head and neck.

“It’s the ultimate simulation,” said Ben Grams, who matched into general surgery at UNMC. “Having the cadavers makes it so much easier to learn as opposed to looking in a book.”

Jeremy Hosein, who matched into neurosurgery in Colorado, is practically boy scout status after tying so many knots.

“I’m 1,000 percent better,” he said. “We’ve each now tied a couple thousand knots.”

It’s not all knots. The mixture of advice and teaching comes from faculty and residents in many areas of surgical specialties at UNMC. There’s also the Laparoscopic Skills Olympics and of course, Jeopardy, held in the Medical Services Building.

categories

With categories like “Things that are Red?” (Solo cup not being an acceptable answer) “The Number After 2,” “It’s Not a Toomah,” “Orders in the OR” and “X-ray,” it’s hard for the students not to have fun. After four years of non-stop studying, they relish the relaxed environment of “boot camp.”

“It’s an opportunity to reconnect with everybody,” said Jennifer Dwyer, a soon-to-be urological surgery resident at UNMC.

Dwyer brought the bagels and coffee for her team on the day of Final Jeopardy. After correctly writing an order to “administer a fluid challenge to a 19kg child who is hypotensive,” she and her teammates were stumped by what foreign body was pictured on an X-ray.

Fishing bobbers, guessed one student? Nope. Another student shouted an answer that can’t be printed in this blog. Nope. The answer was magnets. Giggling ensued.

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Tom Brush holds up his team’s answer to a surgical Jeopardy question.

Their final exam was a double elimination bracket of tying 10 knots with fine suture. For many, having to do so will never be a part of their everyday lives, but it was a skill they thought impossible just three and a half weeks ago.

They opted to be here because they know it’ll make them better.

That, and it’s fun.

The scientist and his chicken soup

Oh. So that’s what we’ve come to talk to him about.

Chicken soup.

Dr. Rennard exhaled, and leaned back in his chair so his voice would carry into the open office door across the hall: “How do I feel about the chicken soup story, Lillian?”

After a knowing laugh, the answer: “It’s just been unbelievable,” Lillian said.

Dr. Rennard watches his wife, Barbara Rennard, the study’s first author, make her famous chicken soup.

Dr. Rennard is Stephen Rennard, M.D., Larson Professor of pulmonary and critical care medicine at UNMC. Lillian is Lillian Richards, office associate I, internal medicine pulmonary, charged with wrangling Dr. Rennard, and sometimes (OK, often) also all this stuff about chicken soup.

And this chicken soup stuff never stops. It happened again, just the other day. This time it was Martha Stewart mentioning it in a syndicated “Ask Martha” column. Yes, Martha said. According to a “recent” University of Nebraska Medical Center study, chicken soup, while not a cure, could help alleviate symptoms of the common cold.

It never stops.

Go ahead, Google the words Rennard chicken soup and the search engine comes up with about 5,330 results in .21 seconds. None of them, as far as we can tell, are about any other Rennard or any other chicken or any other soup.

People love it that a scientist actually has studied whether chicken soup might be good for you, when you have a cold, just like your mom says.

Dr. Rennard, UNMC’s inaugural scientist laureate, is a world-renowned chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) researcher. Well, he’s world renowned for his COPD research within scientific circles. To the rest of us, thanks to a 1993 study that’s proven to have gone not viral, but retroviral, he’s world renowned as Mr. Chicken Soup.

“It’s been 20 years,” Dr. Rennard said.

“That’s the funny part,” came Lillian’s voice, from across the hall.

Barbara Rennard’s chicken soup comes from her grandmother’s recipe.

It’s like a musician, who has done great work for decades. But we, the public, can’t get that one, long-ago hit song out of our heads.

Right?

Well, no, Dr. Rennard said. It’s not like that at all. “It would be kind of like,” he said, and then paused for a good 10 seconds, trying to think of what it would be like.

“OK, so Charles Dodgson,” Dr. Rennard finally said. (Charles Dodgson? Pen name: Lewis Carroll.) “It’s kind of arrogant to compare yourself to somebody like that. But, he got to be really famous for ‘Alice in Wonderland.’

“He was actually a serious mathematician,” Dr. Rennard said.

“But nobody cares about that other stuff.”

This all happened because Dr. Rennard had also always heard the folk wisdom, from cultures all over the world, that chicken soup helps colds, and he loves that kind of stuff – he studied folklore and mythology at Harvard. But he also is a scientist. He lives to find the truth of things, to figure things out.

And, his wife makes chicken soup. Wonderful chicken soup. Magical chicken soup. It is Barbara Rennard’s grandmother’s recipe, and if any chicken soup could cure colds, it would be this one.

TV stations across the country have shown Barbara Rennard making chicken soup, and a station in Cincinnati even uses some of the footage as “B-roll” on Mother’s Day. How do we know? A childhood friend called her: “Barbara! I just saw you on TV!”

Why not look into it?

What we did in the laboratory was actually very rigorous,” Dr. Rennard said. “Admittedly, we did it for the fun of it. Because we were amused by it like everybody else.”

And?

“What ourwork shows is that there are ingedients in common foodstuffs that might have anti-inflammatory actions. That old adage, that if it helps you, it might not be wrong.”

And so it is that Dr. Rennard, renowned COPD scientist, will be forever cited for his research on chicken soup.

Barbara Rennard and Dr. Rennard go over some of the research inspired by her chicken soup.

How does he feel about that? Well, when the subject is first broached, his body language did not scream enthusiasm. But, the longer Dr. Rennard talked, it was clear chicken soup is like that rascal uncle you can’t help but love. With every memory, he couldn’t help but smile. It’s been a fun ride. Besides, he may as well roll with it. It’s never going away.

Leaning: “Do you think people will finally stop calling about the chicken soup story, Lillian?”

“No,” Lillian said.

“I think when you finally retire we’ll give them your home phone number,” Dr. Rennard said.

Chicken soup has given Dr. Rennard three great career highlights, the kind few scientists are lucky to get:

• His wife Barbara, the study’s first author and head soup chef, always loved listening to Bob Edwards on National Public Radio (NPR). Guess who was interviewed by Edwards about chicken soup and managed to get his wife in on the call? “He talked to me for 10 minutes. He talked to her for the whole rest of the hour!” Dr. Rennard said. “And my wife’s friends were listening to NPR radio and said, ‘That’s Barbara Rennard!’ ”

• When Dr. Rennard’s hometown paper, the St. Louis Sun, was doing a chicken soup story for its Sunday magazine, it asked him for a photo. Well, it is his wife’s grandmother’s recipe, he said, and she was from St. Louis. How about a photo of her? It ended up being an old photo of Barbara Rennard’s grandmother cooking with her two young daughters, Barbara’s mother and aunt. Heartwarming stuff. “I got my mother-in-law’s picture in the newspaper,” Dr. Rennard said. A man can’t do much better than that.

• Dr. Rennard and chicken soup were a question in Trivial Pursuit. Every parent can relate: of all the work he has done, it was nice to finally have something his kids thought was pretty cool.

And so, Dr. Rennard will continue to work tirelessly on COPD (“It’s the third-leading cause of death in the United States and it’s not a household word,” he said). And he will continue to take phone calls about chicken soup.

Dr. Rennard adds carrots under his wife’s watchful eye.

Because those calls keep coming. Lillian used to try to keep track of a stack of news clippings, but it grew too much. This year alone Dr. Rennard and his chicken-soup study have been cited nationally by Martha Stewart, Men’s Fitness and the Huffington Post, among others.

It’s the media-exposure equivalent of a golden goose. It just keeps giving, year after year.

Few have done as much to put UNMC in the public consciousness as has Dr. Rennard’s research on his wife’s wonderful chicken soup. And, while he said he isn’t quite sure of all the logic behind why, Dr. Rennard does know that any time national media mentions UNMC, it is, as Martha herself might say, a good thing.

“It doesn’t show up in my annual productivity, things I’m responsible for,” he said.

What? How can that be? That’s a huge contribution to the university. How is all this not noted in his file?

“Lillian!” Dr. Rennard said. “So, Kalani thinks that we need to record in ADIS all the chicken soup interviews.”

“I quit,” Lillian said.