After undergoing surgery to have two steel bars inserted into her chest during the summer between her sophomore and junior year, Rebecca Uhl agreed with two rules from her surgeon, Dr. Dawn Jaroszewski, M.D..
“No skydiving and no downhill longboarding—I think it’s only because she couldn’t think of all the other possibilities,” said Uhl, now a senior marketing major and extreme sports fan.
Uhl went hang-gliding this past spring break, and Jaroszewski did not find out about it until she received a photo of the experience.
She was “displeased with my reckless tendencies,” Uhl said.
Although it started as a patient-doctor relationship between Uhl and Jaroszewski, a cardiothoracic surgeon at Mayo Clinic in Arizona, it is now a relationship between mentee and mentor.
Uhl suffered from pectus excavatum, a congenital chest wall deformity where the chest presses down on the heart and lungs, which restricts breathing and would lead to later cardiac issues if left untreated. She decided to take initiative her sophomore year to get herself treated, and she eventually found out about Jaroszewski, one of the top surgeons to perform the operation.
Uhl flew out to Arizona during the summer and after receiving the surgery, she realized how much the bars made a difference in helping her breathe.
But the process from learning about pectus to getting on the operating table was a overwhelming experience for Uhl because of the lack of clear, concise information.
So Uhl, wanting to help Jaroszewski raise awareness for the condition, decided to use her technological and marketing skills to build a website that would inform pectus patients on everything they needed to know before and after treatment.
The next six months dedicated to the site were rigorous and often frustrating for Uhl to work with Jaroszewski’s time zone and schedule. Jaroszewski’s pectus coordinator Kelly Myers and nurse Marianne Merritt helped Uhl, and Uhl’s assistant professor of management information systems James Moustafellos allowed her to build the website, drjpectus.com. as a passing assignment for his class.
A chance encounter on a plane to Arizona with a patient named Victoria, who was scheduled to be operated on by Jaroszewski, also showed Uhl how she could offer the perspective of someone who had gone through the surgery.
“I ended up literally walking Victoria to and from the operating room,” Uhl said. “It changed my perspective about things—walking another patient to the operating room and being with them through the recovery. The questions she would ask were the same questions I had.”
With a Facebook page and walkthrough videos of what to expect on the day of surgery, Jaroszewski said she’s seen a noticeable difference with patients.
“I see patients that say they would have never come here or gone to surgery without the information that [Rebecca] put out there and made easily available,” Jaroszewski said.
On Oct. 24, Uhl held a presentation for medical students on Main Campus that described her reconstructive surgery. Jaroszewski attended the event via Skype for Uhl to tell her story.
Uhl is grateful to Jaroszewski, not just for the surgery but for the valuable lessons she’s gained along the way. After not getting an internship at Biomet, the company that produces the bars supporting her chest, Jaroszewski suggested she apply for an internship with Mayo Clinic.
Uhl got the position and worked at the clinic this past summer. She now wants to pursue technology-based healthcare marketing.
“I couldn’t have picked a better mentor and it just happened by accident,” Uhl said. “For me, if I can help improve the patient experience, if I can help someone be less scared about going to the operating room … then my job is done.”
This upcoming summer marks two big events for Uhl: graduation in May and a surgery to have the bars removed in July. She hopes to then introduce Jaroszewski to an extreme sports trip.
Albert Hong can be reached at email@example.com.