Dr. Terri Vrtiska

Terri Vrtiska fits the profile of many Doane students in the early 1980s.

She grew up in the tiny farming community of Table Rock and graduated with 20 classmates.

Her father was a dryland farmer who spent 12 years in the Nebraska Legislature.

Her mom was a teacher and homemaker to the family's three children. 

They were a Cornhusker red family whose children went to Doane and Peru.  College tuition - private or public - did not come without sacrifice. 

More than two decades later, it's Dr. Vrtiska now, assistant professor of radiology and physician director of the Clinical 3D and Post-processing Lab at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

In recent years she spoke internationally on radiology and technological advances.  She updated congressional leaders on new technology in medicine.  And she played an integral role in a surgery to separate conjoined twins.

Her journey began the day she set foot on the Doane campus, she said.

"The thing I can really thank Doane for is the feeling of confidence to go forward to develop a career that fit my skills, a feeling that ‘Yes, you can accomplish that.'"

She credits former professor Dr. Marcia Freer and a generous scholarship in psychology for her decision to consider Doane.  The campus visit sealed the deal.

"I still remember walking around and the change of seasons on campus. It was a lovely academic setting."

Several faces stand out, people like Dr. Dick Dudley and his interterm travels, Dr. Todd Georgi and  Dr. Rob Wikel in biology, and Dr. Thomas Coulter, an engaging history professor.

"Coulter's class was the first time I remember being in an environment where we explored things so broadly that I had never been exposed to. It was like going to a performance every class."

She remembers sitting with Dr. Freer in her office surrounded by brick and books and warm sunlight.  An interterm trip to Florida with Dick and Lillian Dudley - a sailing trip that cold weather turned into an impromptu cooking class - produced some of the best memories of her life.

Each of those faces empowered her, she said.  It's why she listened when a medical professional subtly encouraged her to try medical school rather than physician assistant training.

With support from home, Doane and the internship at a Crete medical clinic, she went on to graduate from Vanderbilt University and a surgical residency.

She's now in her 20th year with the Mayo Clinic, where she started in the surgical department and transitioned to radiology.  There are 150 radiologists in her department; part of a massive health center that sees 500,000 new inpatients and an additional 2.5 million outpatients each year.

At Mayo, Vrtiska interprets imaging exams, specializing in blood vessels and kidneys. Most days are spent pouring over images, searching for a diagnosis.

It may be a young woman with breast cancer or a young man with a potentially fatal blood vessel aneurysm in need of repair.  She shares the information with patients and physicians for education and planning.

A little more than a year ago, a special family arrived at the clinic who would become a joyful highlight of her work. Abbigail and Isabelle Carlsen, conjoined twin infant daughters of Jesse and Amy Carlsen of Fargo, North Dakota, arrived at the clinic joined at the chest and abdomen. Vrtiska was among a 70-member medical team who collaborated to separate them in an eight-hour surgery.  Her role basically was the same as with each of her patients, she said, "but the complexity of this was remarkable."

The girls shared a single bile duct, overlapping hearts and other complicating factors. Vrtiska and other radiologists used computer models to process imaging data and create 3-D images, producing "unprecedented, detailed, lifelike and complex recreations," a Rochester Post Bulletin article recalled.

The scans laid the foundation for the approaching operation and were used to make a hard model doctors could see and hold, like a road map.  Movie-sized posters of imaging data covered the operating room. From a medical standpoint, the operation was a rush that followed six or more weeks of preparations and rehearsals.

"It was such perfect teamwork. I don't think ever in my career I've had a goal so visible, where everyone had their part," Vrtiska said.

On an emotional level, the success of the surgery brought a feeling of triumph for the medical team, who were able to hand a success story to a family who had touched so many at the clinic.

"They were so vulnerable, yet open to publicity and the medical process. I really commend them," Vrtiska said, recalling how news organizations from USA Today to MSNBC covered the family's journey.

The girls are just one example of her love for her work and the organization that awarded her the 2006 Mayo Clinic Diagnostic Radiology Carmen Award for Clinical Excellence, an honor given to one radiologist each year.

She's one of the lucky ones, Vrtiska said.  "I feel like I'm in the right field doing what I was meant to do and that's a real privilege. When I hear people say what they'd rather do, I can't think of anything I'd rather do."

She is reminded how far she has come when she lectures internationally.

Or when she sees the picture of herself speaking at a hearing in Washington D.C., something she knew would make her mother, Doris, and former State Senator father, Floyd Vrtiska, proud, not to mention her husband, Bernie Swenson.

"My mother wanted each of her three children to complete post-graduate education. She was a real inspiration for all of us to continue our education," Vrtiska said of her mother, who passed away in the spring of 2007.

Not too long ago, Vrtiska watched young medical students - portraits of herself 20 years ago - attend an education fair in Minneapolis. The Carlsen family and their healthy twin girls made a surprise visit. Students got to see exciting new opportunities in medicine and a live and personal example of the difference they can make in the medical field.

All it takes is a starting-off point, Vrtiska said, and people who care to see you off.

"We were all given those opportunities at Doane."


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