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.

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.

How the PR department “pulled one over” on Tom O’Connor

toeditUNMC’s Tom O’Connor and his wife, Karen
I found out a month ago that Tom O’Connor, senior associate director in public relations here at UNMC, was chosen to receive the “Special Achievement in Public Relations” award at the PRSA Nebraska gala on Dec. 4

But there was one caveat. Organizers wanted it to be a surprise. Our department had to keep it a secret from Tom (gasp!). Keeping a secret from Tom is like playing Santa. You have to work behind the scenes and be sneaky, though no long, white beard is required.

When I asked a colleague for ideas on how to get Tom to the awards ceremony without him realizing why, she had two words for me: “He’ll know.”

 But we were a determined bunch. After some conspiring with our PR director, Bill O’Neill, we decided to tell Tom the department won an award and we needed him to accept it.

 Yes, that would do, or so we thought. Tom agreed to go, but wasn’t satisfied with our story. Being the investigative journalist type, he continued to ask for details. Details that didn’t exist. After all, this was a made-up award.

 Enter an e-mail from Bill.

 “The next e-mail that I send out will be a complete fabrication so that Tom O. will quit asking me about the award. Remember, it is Tom who is actually receiving the award for his service to the PR profession.”

 And that next e-mail from Bill:

 “Found out yesterday that the award we will receive tonight is for “Outstanding Public Relations on behalf of a non-profit” … Thanks to Tom, Lisa, Vicky and Nicole for representing our department at the PRSA gala tonight. Great job, all!”

 As for the relentless questioning from Tom about who nominated us and why, we all played dumb and it seemed to work (not sure if this is necessarily a good thing).

 The biggest coup was getting his wife, Karen, to attend without giving anything away. Her having attended 3,472 of these types of events over the years, we knew that she would normally prefer to pass. But this wasn’t just another dinner. This was one in which her husband would be receiving a Grammy for PR.

 Bill called to clue her in at the last minute, giving her the scoop that it was actually Tom, not our department, who would be honored. While he was on the phone with Karen, Tom walked in the room. Bill quickly hung up. He covered by telling Tom there was now an extra seat at our table and asked if Karen could fill it. Figuring she wouldn’t want to go, he called her anyway.

 And this is when Karen put on an Academy Award-winning performance. She moaned and groaned and even threw in some colorful language for good measure. Karen knew that if she said yes right away it would be obvious something was up, so reluctantly she agreed to go. It was exactly what sold Tom on the idea that this was a general awards dinner.

 Fast forward to that night. During the cocktail hour, Tom still wasn’t satisfied with our vague description of what we were winning and questioned me again. My response: “I think it’s an award of merit…or maybe excellence…Bartender, more wine please!”

 Later, Tom, Karen, Vicky, Lisa Spellman and I took our places at the table. They began to announce award winners and UNMC’s name was never called. I wondered when Tom would start to get suspicious, but he didn’t until the moment they read his bio from the podium.

 “…36 years of media relations experience….. credible, friendly and reliable….helps place more than 2,000 UNMC media hits per year.”

 Tom turned to his wife and said: “I think they’re talking about me.” With a huge grin on her face, Karen replied, “They ARE!”

 Tom stood, and sheepishly walked to the podium. First one person stood, and then another, then a few more and finally the whole room rose to their feet and applauded everyone’s favorite media relations guy. T.O. received a standing ovation. On his way back to the table, it got quiet for a second. Someone then started a second round of applause. It was a special moment to be a part of.

At the conclusion of the ceremony, it was clear Tom never suspected a thing. I believe he uttered something like, “Ya got me.”

 Ever the PR man, Tom sent a gracious email around the next morning.

 “It was a great honor for me. But, I say this in total sincerity, I owe it all to UNMC and the great people I have been lucky to work with in PR. You make me look way better than I really am. Way better.”

 And that, my friends, is the story of how the PR Department “pulled one over” on our very own Tom O’Connor.