First-Person Accounts from Medical Professionals

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a surgeon for a day, performing open-heart surgery or restoring blood flow to someone’s brain? What about a paramedic, racing to the hospital while trying to keep a patient calm in the back of an ambulance? Or a hospice physician, whose sole mission is to keep someone comfortable as they’re dying? Colgate Magazine spoke to six medical professionals, who provided first-person accounts of their work. As different as their jobs are, all of these alumni spoke of the joy they feel in those moments when they’re connecting with the person for whom they’re caring. 

Northern Exposure

Betty Anderson ’14 is finishing her family medicine residency in Alaska, where she’s based in Anchorage and travels around the state for rural rotations. She says she chose Alaska because, “I wanted to work with underserved populations, and the most underserved populations in the United States are rural.” When her residency ends in June, Anderson will complete a yearlong fellowship on addiction medicine, which she’s planning to specialize in as well as stay in Alaska.

Living in Anchorage is, in many ways, like living in any other 400,000-person city — but, in some ways, it’s not. “Sorry I’m late; there was a moose” isn’t an excuse you can use everywhere. If a moose is between me and my car, I’m not going anywhere. 

Work trips sometimes involve holding the vaccine cooler and my carry-ons, and stepping onto the airport scale to be weighed because they need your exact weight [to fly]. I’ve spent [time] in Bethel, Hooper Bay, Fairbanks, and Seward. Now I’m in Sitka, 600 miles from Anchorage. I’ve been onboarding and getting used to a new hospital system.

Most of the [rural] communities are off the road system — you cannot drive to them. In the winter, the only way to get to Sitka is by plane. When you land in a village, someone will pick you up and you ride outside — sometimes they’ll load you into the back of a truck or on a sled on the back of a four-wheeler or snow machine — and then they take you to the village clinic.

In Sitka, I’m doing a mix of inpatient and outpatient. I’ll be doing some ER shifts, pretty much all aspects of the hospital and the clinic. We do a fair amount of hands-on work: sutures, procedures, some dermatology. I’ve delivered approximately 60 to 70 babies. It’s whatever walks in your door … from a fishhook stuck in the back of a kid’s head to someone coming in status epilepticus (seizing) and having to intubate and ship them off to the hospital.

Alaska has an interesting medical system where there are regional hubs, and we have a community health aide, where they train people from the community to take vitals and histories. We do radio medical transmission, where the physician in the hospital will make decisions on whether to medevac or put the patient on the next commercial plane to get to the ER.

I’ve flown on a lot of medevacs and gone out to the villages to provide medical care. A lot of these villages, they won’t have a single restaurant or a hotel. If you want to access the villages and you don’t know anyone there, you have to call them up and get permission to go. They make you bring about four days of extra food if you’re going out to a really rural village, just in case you get weathered in and can’t fly out.

We get a lot of training, and we have a month that’s transcultural medicine, where we meet with Alaska Native elders to hear their stories, learn about the history, the culture. They have a different communication style than I’m used to. They often speak lower, and they have a significant pause after each sentence. Learning about those cultural differences can help us serve those populations.

We get alerted to the disorders that run in different populations. There are some genetic disorders that you don’t learn about when you’re studying medicine in the lower 48. Sitka and Bethel are through the Indian Health Services, Alaskan Native–run tribal health consortiums. There are different tribes in these areas, so they have different health issues. One of the things you see in Bethel that you don’t see anywhere else in the United States is there’s a lot of botulism. There’s also a lot of tuberculosis in various places and other specific health care needs.

I have a master’s in bioethics, compassionate care, and medical humanities from Stony Brook University. I’m on the ethics board at Providence Hospital. I’m doing my fellowship on addiction because it’s a massive public health crisis. Alaska has no shortage of patients suffering from it, and we have fewer resources than most communities. Having someone who can do prenatal care and also know how to treat addiction is important. A lot of people suffering from addiction don’t interface with the medical community often, but one of the few times they do is when they’re delivering a baby. If you can make it a positive interaction and give them the medical care they need, you can make significant changes in their lives and their children’s lives.

Anderson’s inspiration to practice rural medicine was her grandfather, who studied tropical medicine and ran a medical clinic in Ghana in the ’60s.

Under the Flashing Lights

Steve Bayliss ’90 is a paramedic for Lee County EMS in Fort Myers, Fla. A former global marketing and business strategy professional for brands such as Energizer Personal Care, Captain Morgan, Nespresso, and Hawaiian Tropic, Bayliss began volunteering part time as an EMT in his hometown of Westport, Conn., five years ago. When the COVID-19 pandemic began, he told his wife: “I think I need to do EMS full time to help our communities.” The couple decided to move to Florida to be closer to family and start new careers in health care. Bayliss joined Lee County EMS in 2021. 

I get to help people when they’re not having the best of days, and for me, that is something that is incredibly rewarding: mentally, emotionally, spiritually — all of those elements come together in prehospital emergency medicine. I’m motivated by the concept of service above self and asking, what can I do to help the sick and suffering?

I work 24 hours on, 48 hours off. Our schedule runs from 7 a.m. to 7 a.m. I can be assigned to any station within Lee County, which covers 781 square miles, with a population approaching close to 1 million people. Lee County EMS responds to nearly 110,000 calls for emergency aid each year. I wake up at 4:30 in the morning, arrive at the station by 6:30, and do a truck check to make sure our equipment is ready to go. 

On my last shift, the day was abnormally quiet until 5 p.m., and then we ran straight through [to the end of the shift]. Life in EMS is predictably unpredictable. We had a patient with a tracheostomy that was having difficulty breathing. We transported that patient emergently [with siren and lights] because they were going into respiratory failure. My partner and I suctioned the tracheostomy, provided oxygen, and started an IV. Airway breathing and circulation are the key things we’re assessing for on every patient. Afterward, we had a couple of falls with elderly patients. For geriatric patients, if they’re on a blood thinner, any fall that involves the head increases the risk for a brain bleed. After that, we had a cardiac arrest at 3 a.m. for a 39-year-old patient, which, unfortunately, was a negative outcome. We spent 45 minutes providing CPR and advanced life-saving protocols before declaring death. Then we, along with law enforcement, involved a medical examiner. Our command staff is very good when we have that type of call, giving us a chance to go out of service to restock the ambulance and decon[taminate] ourselves and the equipment. EMS is a profession where you have to be comfortable with getting dirty, which could be the environment or bodily fluids. Once we got the ambulance restocked and back in service, it was approaching 6 a.m. We handed the keys and the truck off to the oncoming crew, and I came home and went to sleep. 

In terms of mental and emotional support, I have a great network — fraternity brothers from Colgate, friends, and family. This shift and the shift prior, we had two intense, high-priority calls. We check in with each other. Pediatric calls are always hard. Having healthy coping mechanisms and a good support network are key.

Part of what allows me to thrive in this role is I come into it with a lot of life experience. I spent most of my first career working and living globally across a range of cultures, people, and economic tiers. I bring that to work every day.

Some of the most rewarding times are the conversations I have with patients. I’ve transported Medal of Honor recipients and people who marched with Martin Luther King. I’ve been able to help someone who just immigrated here experiencing a medical crisis far from home and family. I provide calmness and reassurance to them. I’ve helped to deliver a few babies and resuscitated a few people from cardiac arrest.  There’s been all the tragedy and beauty of humanity in the back of my ambulance.

Bayliss’ oldest sister Madeline graduated in the Class of 1976.

The Angiogram Suite

It’s 30 minutes before Dr. Jonathan Lebovitz ’05 is going into surgery at Vassar Brothers Medical Center in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. As chief of neurointerventional surgery at Elite Brain and Spine in Danbury, Conn., he covers three hospitals. 

Most of my practice is cerebrovascular or blood vessel neurosurgery — patients who have aneurysms, strokes, or stenosis of the carotid artery. In the past, everything was open surgery. Neurointervention is minimally invasive; we work through the blood vessels. The standard way is through the blood vessel of the leg and then you go up to the brain. I specialize in doing it from the arm, which neurosurgeons have only been doing for five years.

Stroke is one of the most common causes of death or morbidity in America. Typically, a patient would come in with weakness of half of their body, speech trouble, and potentially swallowing trouble. They come to the emergency room and would undergo CAT scans to make sure there’s no bleeding or brain tumor. Then they get a CAT scan angiogram, which is where the CT scanner can look at the blood vessels. If you find a blockage on the CAT scan, you call someone like me to do the surgery.

The patient would go to an angiogram suite and I would put a sheath into their arm, which is like your highway to introduce equipment into the blood vessel. It has a valve, so they’re not bleeding out, but it gives us access to bringing equipment in or out.

We bring a series of catheters, or tubes, over smaller wires that drive the catheters, and I bring them up to where the blockage is. We have special catheters where we can attach a suction device to suck the clot out. Sometimes we have to use a combination of stents and the suction if the clot is really firm. The goal is to restore blood flow to the brain to decrease the overall effect of their stroke.

In the room with me is an anesthesiologist, one or two nurses, and one or two X-ray or scrub techs who help run the machine, hand me the instruments, and prepare the patient.

I’m usually standing somewhere between the patient’s knee and hip. The catheter can be up to 5 feet long, I drive it to where it needs to go, and then there’s 6–9 inches outside of the body.

We inject contrast, which lets us see the blood vessels through the X-ray machine. It first takes a picture that then acts as a negative; it deletes all the other information so that all that you see are the blood vessels.

“The most rewarding part of my job is when someone who has had a stroke comes in not moving or talking, and after the procedure, they wake up and all of that is fixed.”

Dr. Jonathan Lebovitz ’05

The catheters are like long tubes, essentially. They’ll be going in from the arm and I’ll twist or push or pull those catheters. I’ll have an assortment of monitors that I’m looking at as I’m working — usually two X-ray machines with different angles.

It could take 15–20 minutes if everything goes well, but if it becomes more complicated, it can take an hour or two. Sometimes the blood clot doesn’t come out right away, or their anatomy makes it difficult to get the equipment into the brain, so I need to develop bigger systems to overcome the twists.

I’m moving from one step to the next, working through the surgery systematically. If I lose my calm or composure, that’s not good for anybody. 

I probably do 300–400 procedures a year. The hardest part of my job is telling a patient’s loved ones that their person has a bad neurologic problem and it’s not reversible. I’ve found that it’s best to be honest and use understandable terms; especially when people are in shock, you need to give them smaller bites of information and allow time for them to process it. 

The most rewarding part of my job is when someone who has had a stroke comes in not moving or talking, and after the procedure, they wake up and all of that is fixed. That’s the best.

Lebovitz first became interested in this work as a clinical research coordinator at Northwestern University.

Honoring Life and Death

Mindy (Stevens) ’95 Shah majored in English at Colgate and went on to Columbia University for an MFA in poetry. Soon after, she was diagnosed with a heart arrhythmia and then suffered from the side effects of a procedure. Shah took a deferment from Columbia, during which her medical experience inspired her to earn her MD and become a doctor. She decided to specialize in geriatrics and palliative care, because “It’s a holistic approach to what’s going on with the patient and family — listening and figuring out what’s important to that patient, as well as shared decision-making with patients and families.” Today, Shah works for the Hospice of the Red River Valley, based in Fargo, N.D. She finds synergy in her work with The Good Listening Project, a nonprofit that pairs poets like Shah with other health care providers to alleviate stress in the industry. The listener poet facilitates a conversation with the person to hear about their experience and then writes a reflective poem. 

The patients we work with in hospice have a prognosis of six months or less, so my goal is to meet their needs, whatever those might be. A lot of times it’s physical comfort, so symptom management; a lot of times it’s education, so letting them or their family or caregivers know what the future might look like and how might we prepare.

I live in Madison, Wis., and work hybrid. Quarterly, I go to Fargo and spend a week with the team members. The rest of the time, I am remotely managing patient issues and giving nurses support from my home. The nurses go out to these patients’ homes, the hospitals, or nursing facilities and they manage symptoms, pain, nausea, anxiety; it’s a mixture of addressing situations with medications, or with staff or family education, or nonpharmacologic ways. I’m very much relying on my nursing staff. 

“Death and dying might be something I deal with on a regular basis, but I can’t become numb to that. I need to be constantly reminding myself that this is a seminal event.”

Mindy (Stevens) ’95 Shah

I’ve worked in different hospice settings, some where I’ve been there in person on inpatient units. I’ve also gone out to patients’ homes and cared for them there. I’m always collaborating with nursing staff quite a bit, but especially in this position. There are a lot of safety practices we have in place and communication standards to make sure we’re giving each other information in the correct way.

The majority of our patients are geriatric, but we do have a contingent of middle-aged folks. Occasionally we have younger patients, children, and newborns. 

I do video visits from my home, with patients or families, to discuss questions or concerns they have. The hospice I work for covers both metro and rural areas in North Dakota and parts of Minnesota, sometimes Native American reservations, or places without good internet connectivity. It’s important to figure out ways to make this kind of care work in a remote environment. I’m having to deal with what resources are available in the home to be able to reach out to my team members. If we don’t have a video connection, maybe we’re talking on the phone or using secure texting, or maybe we get cut off three times and we keep trying to reach out to each other. You have to problem-solve. 

Initially, around the time of the pandemic, I thought video visits were not going to be as valuable because I put a lot of importance on the energy in the room and the human connection. But, actually, video visits have been great. I still feel like I’m able to make that connection with the patients and the families, without them having to leave their surroundings.

I’ve also seen this with the other work I do, with The Good Listening Project. My writing and my work in hospice and palliative care are closely linked. It has to do with witnessing, with accompanying someone on different journeys. I use the same listening skills when I’m putting a poem together for a person through The Good Listening Project as I do when I’m in a conversation with a patient or family. It’s about letting that person know they’ve been heard.

Sometimes the most memorable experiences are when I can be with a patient or family, either in person or sitting quietly over video, even if we’re not saying anything. In person, some of the most powerful experiences have been when I’ve walked in and somebody’s died. I’ll go in and just sit there with the family or alone with the patient for a few moments and honor what their experience was.

Death and dying might be something I deal with on a regular basis, but I can’t become numb to that. I need to be constantly reminding myself that this is a seminal event. I may see it every day, but this may be the first death that a family member or friend has ever seen. So I want it to always be sacred. I make a conscious effort to ground myself in those moments, whether they’re in person, over the phone, or over the computer, so it never becomes routine.

At Colgate, Shah won the Allen Prizes in English Composition; later, she won the William Carlos Williams Poetry Competition. 

Heart to Heart

Born into a German family specializing in construction, Dr. Bob Helm ’85 knew he wanted to become a surgeon because he always liked using his mind and his hands together, whether it was framing a door, playing sports, or drawing. Today, he is a cardiothoracic surgeon at Portsmouth Hospital in New Hampshire, performing one to three surgeries a day, five days a week, most weeks of the year.

Besides being with my family, my favorite place is in the operating room. (By the way, my wife, Jen ’86, and my daughter Chrissi ’15 graduated from Colgate; Daisy ’26 is there now.)

To me, surgery is just construction on the human body. You do each individual step as perfectly as possible, in the correct logical sequence, and you come out with a very reproducible, “perfect” result.

The older I get, the more experience I gain. This experience translates into improved and more efficient performance of my job, and it also allows me to relax and enjoy the process of fixing hearts. I find that music helps the flow of an operation. My go- tos are reggae and classic rock.

I do primarily heart valve surgery, coronary bypass grafting, aortic aneurysm repair, and adult congenital surgery. I specialize in minimally invasive valve surgery, and at this point I do more mini-aortic valves — through a 1.5–2-inch incision — than anyone else in New England.  My job is essentially to fix anything that’s wrong with the heart in the least invasive way, so that patients can recover and return to their normal life as quickly as possible.

When doing a minimally invasive aortic valve surgery, a small skin incision is made over what I need to see. I then divide the upper portion of the breastbone down to the third intercostal space, or space between the ribs, so that the upper portion of the breastbone moves out of the way and reveals the heart structures beneath. The cannulas, or tubes, that allow us to connect to the heart-lung machine are then placed into the heart. The heart-lung bypass machine, which is essentially a pump and an oxygenator, allows us to bypass the patient’s heart and lungs so that we can fully empty and stop the heart, allowing us to directly operate on it.

During a mini-aortic valve replacement, we open up the aorta and examine the diseased aortic valve. In patients with aortic stenosis, the valves are often diseased with abnormally thickened and calcified rock-like tissue that leaves only a small opening where there should be a large one. We cut out the diseased valve and surrounding diseased tissue, clear out the calcium and other debris, and then carefully vacuum and wash the area to make sure there’s nothing left that can embolize and cause strokes or other organ damage. We then place 12–15 sutures that secure the new artificial valve into position. A majority of the valves are “bioprosthetic.” These are composed of natural tissue harvested from the pericardial sac that surrounds the heart of special cows. This tissue is hand sewn to a titanium frame by highly skilled seamstresses. Once the new valve is placed, we separate the patient from the heart-lung machine, remove the cannulas, and close the chest. A minimally invasive aortic valve replacement such as this typically takes 2–2.5 hours.

I have a high-definition, 4K headlight camera, as well as a second camera in one of the overhead operating room lights. This allows us to record every operation for teaching and research, and also allows everyone in the room — the entire 8- to 9-person surgical team and any residents and students — to be fully engaged in the procedure. I wear magnifying “loops” (4.5 magnification lenses) to improve visualization — something that is essential when sewing with sutures that are often thinner than a human hair.  

I really enjoy talking to patients. Initially when I get a call to see a new patient who needs heart surgery, it feels as if I’m being given an additional volume of work that I have to do before the day’s over. But the moment I walk into the room and see the patient — the moment our eyes meet — any feeling of work falls away, and I simply want to help them. They become part of my family. I do 300–350 open-heart surgeries per year, and I’ve been at my job for 25 years now, so that’s approximately 10,000 cases so far.

Helm was part of the team that saved David Letterman’s life when the comedian needed urgent quintuple bypass surgery in 2000. Helm and the other members of the surgical team were later invited to appear on the Late Show.

A Gentle Touch

Angela Chongris ’98 is the face patients see before they’re wheeled into surgery with Bob Helm ’85. She’s a same-day care nurse who gets patients ready for the operating room. Helm relies on Chongris to check patients’ medical history and ensure they’ve taken the pre-op steps so the staff can proceed with surgery safely. Also, because Chongris is the one who’s called when there’s a tricky IV that others can’t get in, Helm has tapped her expertise for a vascular catheter care research project he’s been working on to decrease complications. Like Helm, Chongris’ eye-hand coordination (she was a lacrosse and hockey player at Colgate) is a skill she uses in her
job daily.

When I graduated from Colgate, I worked there as an associate director of the annual fund. I was in charge of the development intern program, and I had a lot of fun working with those students. While living in Hamilton, I joined the Southern Madison County Volunteer Ambulance Corps. A friend knew that I had driven dump trucks and plow trucks for my family. He said, “You think you could drive an ambulance?” And I said, “Oh, yeah.”

I missed my family and wanted to be closer to home, so I moved to New Hampshire and took an EMT class and really liked it. I said, “I want to be an ER nurse.” After nursing school, I worked in the ER for many years and then transitioned to surgical services.

I find that the healthier patients tend to be more nervous for surgery because they haven’t spent a lot of time in the hospital. A lot of patients come in scared. One of the things I love the most about my job is that we have the ability to instill confidence in our patients and, to distract them, we get them talking about their kids, their grandkids, or their dogs. By the time they’re rolling off into the OR, they’re looking me in the eyes and saying, “I don’t know how you did it, but thank you because I feel so much more relaxed.”

Sometimes patients can be a little grumpy. By the end, they’re laughing with you and smiling, and those are the ones who are quite rewarding because I know I’ve turned them around.

I have always been a people person. I grew up at a restaurant; in our family, customer service was part of normal talk at our house growing up. They teach you a lot about touch in nursing school and how that alone can be a source of comfort for patients. I’ll put my hand on somebody’s foot, and I can see their shoulders drop. You can tell who needs a little tap or a little squeeze of the toe or foot that says, “Hey, everything’s going to be OK.”