From the heart: Dubuque surgeon leans on musical background and faith

As a child growing up in Montreal, Stephanie Helmer, M.D., unknowingly prepared to be a heart surgeon by practicing the cello.

“If you’re preparing for a performance, every note has to be perfect and everything has to sound right,” Helmer said. “You go over phrases until it’s perfect, or as close to perfect as you can make it.

“You’re also making your fingers do things that they really weren’t meant to be doing, and I didn’t like performing in front of audiences very much,” she laughed. “In cardiac surgery, you’re doing things for long periods of time and your body is in some pretty bad contorted positions, sometimes, and there’s really no room for error at all, so the stress level for both is pretty high.”

Helmer, 51, is the only female cardiothoracic surgeon in Dubuque, and just one of two total in Dubuque (along with Dr. Lance Bezzina). They both work in the Medical Associates Cardiovascular and Thoracic Surgery Department.

Before coming to town in September, she had worked in larger hospitals during a 21-year career in places such as Montreal and most recently Dallas.

“I thought Dubuque would be a good place, because they would allow me to do heart, lungs and vascular,” she said. “And having done five years of organ procurement for a certain time, I decided I didn’t want to be up all night waiting in a hospital to procure some organs.”

She has brought with her new techniques that will allow the department to better meet the needs of their referring doctors and patients.

“There is less trauma here than some of the centers I’ve worked at, but we can still get cardiac trauma, gunshot wounds, stabbings …” she said.

“Dr. Helmer is one of the most passionate physicians I have ever worked with,” said Christine Burds, ARNP, of the Medical Associates CV Surgery Department. “She puts her whole heart (excuse the pun) into everything she does. She is not afraid to work hard and even though she was not raised in the Midwest she has the same work ethic.”

A new home, old faith

Helmer and her two preteen daughters — Rachel and Sidney — like Dubuque’s landscape and people. The children are starting to get involved in singing, playing instruments and other activities. And Helmer marvels at the dedication of her Medical Associate staff members, from the office to anesthesia to the operating room.

“People here really try to go the extra mile,” Helmer said. “I’ve worked with a lot of teams, and that’s not always the case. Everybody’s pleasant to the patients and make the patients feel the best as they can, under the circumstances. Which is just a joy.

“In the OR, the whole team — even though it’s difficult, the cases are hard — everybody’s trying to vouch for the patient. In other centers I’ve been at, the scrub nurses would scrub out to have their break an hour into the case. Here, everybody pitches in until the last minute, and it’s just incredible.

“And then they have to put up with my short-temperedness,” she laughed.

Bezzina is impressed with his colleague in many ways.

“She has the right mix of being a leader and also a team player,” Bezzina said. “She is not only extremely gifted and talented in the OR but she can relate and explain things to patients so they can understand. Not all surgeons have this quality.

She always is putting patients first.”

Helmer said her faith keeps her grounded.

“I’m grateful that I can call on God’s help or Jesus’ help wherever I am,” the Protestant Lutheran said. “I pray for my patients. And I pray for the patience I need to not get frustrated when things don’t go my way,” she laughed.

Early doubts

Helmer was born in New York City and moved to Montreal when she was 3. Later, she played cello in the Canadian National Youth Orchestra, as well as a lot of outdoor, pickup hockey with the neighborhood guys.

She also felt a tug toward medicine.

“I just wanted to help people,” Helmer said, “which sounds very banal.”

But she didn’t believe she could get into medical school, believing instead she might become be a physical therapist.

“I didn’t think I was smart enough,” she said. “I was always underestimating what I was capable of.”

An organic chemistry teacher encouraged her to go for it as she was preparing for college in Canada. She got into pre-med at McGill University Medical School in Montreal, Quebec, and spent 1986-1998 in med school, general surgery and cardiothoracic surgery residency there.

“My first rotation I did was on cardiac service and I just loved it. Since then, that’s what I’ve wanted to do.”

She struggled with the book load during her first two years of medical school but eventually “doing the practical aspects made all the book learning make sense.”

She has been married twice, but single for the last eight years, pointing to the profession as all-consuming.

“I used to be far more active prior to having kids,” she said, pointing to a past of triathlons, a half-marathon and ice hockey. “I’m kind of an introvert. And the job completely wears you out.”

Like a bar-room brawl

Almost everything about her job is exhausting, Helmer said.

From the mornings encouraging patients and preventing anything bad from happening to answering their many questions about what is going to happen in surgery, to the actual surgeries, she feels the effects later on.

“During surgery day in OR, you’re trying to stay upbeat, often during difficult situations where the patient’s heart is not strong or not doing well or there are a lot of bleeding issues,” she explained. “Your body is in very bad, contorted postures. You’re wearing a sterile gown and a headlight and loupes on your face that are heavy magnifying glasses.”

Her body will hold certain positions for long periods of time while retracting a heart or a lung during surgeries that can last up to eight hours. She will sometimes find herself in such an intense, focused zone that she “basically ceases to exist” outside of the task at hand.

“Then, at the end of the day, you feel like you need a full-body massage or go out on a rack or something because you feel like you’ve been in a bad bar-room brawl fight and lost. You feel physically exhausted.”

Even when at home, as one of just two Medical Associates cardiovascular surgeons, she’s almost always on call. And, as a single parent in a new town, she said finding childcare at those times or when school lets out early adds to her challenges.

Still a male-dominated world

Helmer, who also is board certified in family medicine, has experienced the slights of her profession.

“Somebody once said, ‘We always have to work twice as hard to be thought of as half as good’ as the men,’ and I thought ‘That’s absolutely right.’”

She’s happy more women are getting into medical school and also fields such as orthopedic surgery and neurosurgery, also dominated by men.

“I think people can realize that women have been sewing for years and years and fine, crosspoint stitching,” she said with a laugh. “You know you can make your hands do what they need to do at the right time. So the technical challenge is usually not the hard part. Usually the hard part is dealing with other surgeons’ perceptions.”

She has seen other male surgeons who were less gifted get lauded or praised more than female counterparts.

“That doesn’t bother me,” she said. “But what needs to be said is, there’s still a huge discrepancy in payment. In my past, I’ve had male surgeons being paid more than double my salary. There needs to be improvements there.”

Still, she feels blessed to be doing what she’s doing.

“I think my parents (her father was a classical pianist), were a little disappointed that I got accepted in medical school,” she said. “They wanted me to be a professional cellist.

“But you find your own niche. I know that I’m technically able to do things (as a surgeon) that I give all the glory to God, because I know that’s not me.”

Jim Swenson writes for the Telegraph Herald.

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