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Bear true faith and allegiance

Article-Bear true faith and allegiance

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  • Dr. Amy Wandel's life journey to the OR led through 27 years in the U.S. Navy
  • In retrospect, the now-retired Captain was blazing trails in both her medical and military careers

Dr. Amy Wandel's life journey to the O.R. led through 27 years in the U.S. Navy. In retrospect, the now-retired Captain was blazing trails in both her medical and military careers. It just didn't strike her so at the time. While attending the University of California at Berkeley, she volunteered as a candy striper at Alta Bates Hospital. Curiosity and the desire to expand her horizons led her to lobby surgeons into letting her watch operating procedures. Some welcomed her. Others discouraged her, saying surgery wasn't for "little girls." Regardless of the surgeon's attitude, however, she would research the patient's history, the slated procedure, and then ask intelligent questions. This impressed even the more condescending doctors, one of whom subsequently wrote her a letter of recommendation for medical school.

AIMING HIGH A nursing career, more typically a woman's field at the time, never entered Dr. Wandel's mind. She believes that nurses are a critical part of the health care team and allow her to do her job successfully. But, "I fell in love with medicine and the active role the surgeon takes in helping the patient. I wanted to be in control of the patient's care."

Dr. Wandel attended Rosalind Franklin University of Health Science in Chicago on a full military scholarship. Gender bias from superiors was often an issue during her training. "But, I've always looked at this as a challenge to prove them wrong — that women can perform at the same or higher level than their male counterparts," says Dr. Wandel. Fortunately, she notes, "The military tends to evaluate you on your performance — not your sex."

When asked about any lingering gender gap in surgical fields, Dr. Wandel brightens. "Nowadays, younger surgeons are less gender-sensitive because men and women are attending med school and going through internships and residencies together. I believe [women] can achieve parity. Humans are capable of great things!" she laughs.

FINDING FATE ON STAND-BY During her training as a general surgeon, she rotated through Presbyterian Medical Center in San Francisco. There, whenever possible, she spent time in the O.R. or sought out surgeons to assist. One of these, plastic surgeon Bryant Toth, M.D., asked her to assist on a patient who had had his genitials torn off by a workplace machine. Dr. Toth was performing a microvascular procedure using forearm skin to reconstruct the penis. The intricate work fascinated Dr. Wandel, who checked on the patient every day. "That's when I decided to become a plastic surgeon," she recalls. "I was so impressed with how dramatically we had changed his life."

A 27-year Navy stint was the furthest thing from her mind. "I took the scholarship thinking I would 'pay back my time' and get out." But, family health issues compelled her to work toward the 20-year retirement mark. "Then, the Iraqi war broke out and I felt the best way I could serve our nation and support our troops was to stay in and help repair devastating injuries." According to Dr. Wandel, constant innovation and research have resulted in a dramatic decline in military patient amputations — from 56 percent in the Vietnam War to 20 percent in the current Iraq War. "There are many areas where technology will allow us to achieve even better functional outcomes for patients," she says. "Damaged nerves, lost muscles, bone damaged beyond repair are all areas where there's research to improve what we can offer our reconstructive patients."

Contrary to the recent spate of bad press, medical treatment remains state of the art in the military's hospitals, states Dr. Wandel. The stories emerging from Walter Reed Hospital cite shortcomings surrounding housing and rehabilitation. "In any medical system which must treat large numbers of severely injured patients, the system concentrates its energy toward getting the patient healed and out of the hospital. [Walter Reed] was a wake-up call for the military to invest more into its injured troops throughout the entire period of their recovery."

SAME PLAN, NEXT CHAPTER Last October, Dr. Wandel retired and joined Mercy Medical Group, a nonprofit medical group that is a service of Catholic Healthcare West and the CHW Medical Foundation. There, her main focus is reconstructive work and procedures that improve overall health, she says. The one constant throughout Dr. Wandel's life and career has been a steadfast faith in a higher power. It has provided her strength when dealing with the ravages of war and disease on the human body. "I believe there's a plan for each of us. Every time I finish a successful free flap or breast reconstruction or see the smile of a child I've repaired a cleft lip on, I know this is where He wants me to be."

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