Youngest grad tells amazing story

Dr. Tina Sauerhammer, M.D., was just 14 years of age when she started at UW-Green Bay, 18 when she finished, and 22 when she graduated med school en route to becoming one of the youngest physicians in the country.

Sauerhammer joked several times about her youth as she returned to deliver the commencement address at her alma mater on May 14.

(She and Chancellor Thomas Harden, above,  briefly addressed the graduates in the staging room, minutes before the ceremony.)

During her formal remarks, later, Sauerhammer credited her early mentors and thanked UW-Green Bay for “taking a big chance on me, admitting their youngest-ever student, a skinny half-Korean girl with a funny name, living at home and too young to get a driver’s license.”

It was a riveting tale of her role in America’s first full face transplant, however, that dominated her presentation.

In March, Sauerhammer, now 30 years of age and a rising specialist in the field of plastic surgery and facial reconstruction, was a key member of the 30-person medical team at Brigham and Woman’s Hospital in Boston that gave a 24-year-old Texas man an entirely new face.

The man was badly burned in a gruesome construction-site accident. He wanted the face transplant, Sauerhammer said, so he could once again feel a kiss on the lips from his 3-year-old daughter.

“Fifteen years ago, this was science fiction,” Sauerhammer recalled for her audience. “Now it was happening right before my eyes.”

Surgeons worked in shifts during the 18-hour operation, and one of her microsurgery duties was to meticulously connect the nerves on the patient’s burned face, one-by-one, to the nerves on the donor face, complete with skin, muscles, a nose and lips.

The operation was a success, and just last week the patient’s daughter visited for the first time.

“When she saw her dad’s new face she said, ‘Daddy, you’re so handsome!’” Sauerhammer said, describing the joy of all involved.

In closing her remarks, she shifted gears and mentioned that her specialization requires continuing practice in more routine — and cosmetic — procedures, “like the infamous face lifts, boob jobs and Botox injections that you’ve probably seen on (the reality show) ‘Nip and Tuck.’”

She drew laughs when she observed that such procedures can help turn back time temporarily, but in the end, “gravity always wins.”

“The only way you can truly hold on to your youth is through education,” she said, adding she hasn’t stopped studying since the day she first walked UW-Green Bay’s tunnels more than 15 years ago.

She challenged the graduating seniors to go on to “grow the next successful business, develop the next iPhone or perform the next face transplant.”

In July, Sauerhammer will move to Washington, D.C., to begin a distinguished fellowship in plastic surgery, and she will continue her studies in Paris in 2012.

“Fountain of Youth,” by Tina Sauerhammer, MD
Address to graduates, University of Wisconsin-Green Bay commencement
May 14, 2011

Thank you so much for having me today. It’s great to be back in Green Bay! While some of my friends consider me an East Coast girl now, I can assure you that I still bleed green and gold. In Boston, I’ve been known to wear my pink #12 jersey around town – and that’s #12 for Aaron Rodgers, not Tom Brady!

I was born and raised in Green Bay, and I was sitting right where you are today, when I graduated back in 1975. Just kidding – I’m old, but not that old.

I now live in Boston, where I love my job working as a plastic surgery fellow. As a surgeon, you quickly amass a vast mental library of stories, from the mundane to the morbid, about your patients and procedures – some of which can never be shared.

Today I want to share a story about a procedure so incredible it wasn’t even in the textbooks when I was a student studying biology at UW Green Bay.

One afternoon this March, I was rotating at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a large, old hospital in downtown Boston, steeped in history and a proving ground for cutting-edge medical innovations.

I had just finished working on a case when my boss approached me with news that made me shake with anticipation. The hospital had just secured a potential donor for a face transplant, and we were to remain on standby as part of a team of plastic surgeons who would perform the procedure.

I had done hundreds of cases before, but this was the type of once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I moved to Boston for.

Our patient was a 24-year-old construction worker from Fort Worth, Texas, who was involved in a gruesome construction accident. He was part of a volunteer crew painting a church when a boom lift he was operating drifted into a live wire. His face was horribly burned and he was left in a coma for three months.

After 22 experimental operations, he was functional, yet featureless.

Brigham and Women’s had been gearing up to perform the type of procedure he needed for years and everyone was struck when they heard the story out of Texas. The recipient wanted the face transplant so he could once again feel a kiss on the lips from his 3-year-old daughter.

At 2 a.m. the next morning, my pager started to buzz. I got out of bed, took a shower, threw on some scrubs, and ran down the street to the hospital.

At that point only one thing was on my mind. I was about to be a part of the first full face transplant in United States history.

I had a good four hours of sleep and about 24 hours worth of adrenaline coursing through my veins.

When I arrived in the OR, it was packed with nurses, anesthesiologists, photographers, and some of the world’s most famous surgeons, including our renowned team leader, Dr. Bodhan Pomahac.

When I approached our patient for the first time I was taken aback by what I saw – a man with a face void of features: no nose, no eyes, and no lips. It reminded me of bank robbers in the movies who wear nylons over their heads to mask their faces, only it was a mask of skin. And it was our job to heal him.

At that moment I came to the realization that we were truly the last chance for our patient and his daughter to get back any semblance of a normal life.

Eighteen hours of surgery followed, and we rotated in shifts. One of my jobs was to perform microsurgery on the patient, slowly and meticulously connecting the nerves on his burned face, one by one, to the nerves on the donor face. The organ we were transplanting consisted of skin, muscles, a nose, and lips from a completely different person.

Over the hours I worked, I witnessed something incredible. The blood began slowly, but surely, flowing into the transplant, reanimating his new face and giving his humanity new life.

Fifteen years ago this was science fiction. Now it was happening right before my eyes.

Two nights after the operation, the hospital was quiet. I was about to finish up for the night and another resident and I took a walk down the halls to check up on our patient. When we got to his room, we heard him speak for the first time after his transplant, and I’ll never forget what he whispered to us:

“I love all of you.”

Just last week, our patient’s daughter visited for the first time.

When she saw her dad’s new face, she said, “Daddy, you’re so handsome.”

Transplant surgery has been a part of my life for many years. When I was in medical school, my father Randy fell prone to a rare autoimmune illness called Wegener’s disease. My dad was on a long waiting list for a kidney transplant that he needed to survive.

I was competing to be Miss Wisconsin at the time, and on the night of my pageant he was in the audience cheering me on as he missed the call from the hospital. My dad was bumped back to the bottom of the transplant list and he died shortly thereafter.

Just like the daughter of my face transplant recipient, I am an only child. So I can begin to imagine, in some way, what that family was going through –¬¬ what they had lost.

I’m 30 years old now and proud of this achievement. But the credit for anything that I have accomplished belongs to others.

The reason I got this opportunity is because so many of my amazing teachers believed in me, starting with Mrs. Wildenberg at Montessori Children’s World in Green Bay.

At the age of 14, working at my own pace with the encouragement of my teachers, I was able to finish my entire high school course work and prepare for college.

UW-Green Bay took a big chance on me, admitting their youngest-ever student, a skinny half-Korean girl with a funny name. I was living at home and too young to get a driver’s license. Thankfully, my mother Oki drove me to my classes at laboratory sciences every day. I was even more grateful to Professor Fishbach for excusing me from my physics quiz so I could take my driving test.

When I went through orientation, I was barely a teenager and had never even been kissed. I had always secretly hoped that no one at UW Green Bay would learn how young I was, but I think the truth must have gotten out, because I didn’t get kissed until I was a senior. I didn’t have my first drink until I was in Medical School at UW Madison.

I probably had my second drink a few minutes later.

Even though I was distracted by a newfound social life and the occasional boy, I somehow managed to pull it together and ended up becoming the youngest-ever graduate of UW Medical School at 22.

General surgery residency at UW Hospital followed, where I basically lived in the OR for five years, before moving to Boston to start my fellowship in plastic surgery.

When I look out into the audience, I see a throng of young, beautiful, confident college graduates at the peak of your lives. I know that you now have the educational foundation from UW-Green Bay to achieve the same level of success that I’ve found.

But I also know there is some fear and unease out there. You face an uncertain economy and job market, and a changing country and world.

Many of you, like me, are the first in your family to go to college – but you now may be wondering if the American dream that guided my story is still there for the taking.

When I was growing up, my father worked in a paper mill and my mother was a seamstress. They didn’t have much education, but because they worked hard and believed, they were able to secure for me an opportunity to get the great education that they never had.

While my father’s generation made a life working manufacturing jobs, America is now facing a different and more competitive global economy. It’s up to you, the next generation, to lead in innovation, science, and technology.

In order for our country to win the future, students in this audience need to go on to grow the next successful business, develop the next iPhone or perform the next face transplant.

But to reach your goals, you can’t stop today. Today has to be the beginning of your educational journey, not the end.

Sometimes as you think about postgraduate studies, you’ll be tempted to give in to fear and the voices that say it’s too hard, don’t try, no you can’t. I know, because I’ve heard those same voices.

But I’m confident that you too will reject them.

Nelson Mandela said, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?”

I’ve been studying for 15 years, since the first day I walked through the tunnels of UW Green Bay.

I’ve been riding the coattails of my education for my whole life. It has presented me with opportunities I never dreamed of as a young girl, playing the game ‘Operation’ in my parents’ basement.

In July I’m moving to Washington, D.C. to begin my next fellowship in plastic surgery – and I will continue my studies in Paris.

While craniofacial reconstructive surgery is my real passion, like most plastic surgeons, part of my work involves cosmetic procedures like the infamous facelifts, boob jobs, and Botox injections that you’ve probably seen on “Nip-Tuck.”

One of the things I quickly learned about cosmetic surgery is that – while the procedures can help turn back time temporarily – in the end, gravity always wins.

The only way you can truly hold on to your youth is through education.

That’s why you should always strive for that feeling that is so unique to academics: when that spark goes off in your brain. When you learn something exciting and foreign about the world that makes you feel wide-eyed and hungry for more. When a teacher or mentor gives that incredible moment that makes your brain feel like a chemistry set, bubbling up with knowledge.

So I urge you today: Take that chemistry set in your head, and mix it up like your favorite cocktail. Don’t stop dreaming, don’t stop striving for something new, and never give up on the pursuit of knowledge.

Education is the only real fountain of youth.

Trust me … I’m a doctor.

Thank you, UW-Green Bay, and good luck, Class of 2011!

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