Tag Archives: University of Nebraska Medical Center

Opiate Addiction and Seniors

February 14, 2019 by
Illustration by Derek Joy

Substance use disorders occur when at least one substance or drug leads to distress or impairment that is clinically significant. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of opioid addicts in the United States is estimated to be in the millions.

Exact numbers may never be known, as many people who are addicted to opioids try to keep it a secret or legitimately do not realize a problem exists. Some may fear the stigma and judgment that come with being an addict.

A recent study by the CDC determined over 200,000 people died in the United States between 1999 and 2016 from causes related to prescription opioids. Nebraska saw 44 deaths in 2016. While less than the national average of 13.3 deaths per 100,000, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Nebraska still saw 2.4 deaths per 100,000 people.

Those over 60 are not immune. The AARP has stated in educational literature that while bipartisan efforts, public awareness of prescription drug issues, and treatment have increased, fewer efforts have been geared to the older population, whose “unique characteristics may demand different or more nuanced solutions to these problems.”

Dr. Allison Dering-Anderson is the community pharmacist in the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Department of Pharmacy Practice and a lecturer in pharmacy law and ethics. She agrees that older adults have more medical issues that put them at risk for substance use disorders.

“People over 60 have any of a number of things that set them up in a circumstance where they need an opiate to treat pain,” Dering-Anderson says. “They are the ones most likely to have some chronic pain condition from an injury that never healed right, or arthritis that is ridiculously painful, and they need an opiate to control the pain.”

Dering-Anderson is no stranger to pain or opiates. She was prescribed opiates after a painful knee operation. Post surgery, she said she would not have been able to do anything without significant pain control, but was lucky that her body chose to accept pain medication as that and nothing more. Not everyone is so lucky. Problems may occur when the body accepts the medication, but the brain becomes accustomed to, and craves, the euphoria associated with opiates.

The problem is the scientific method, Dering-Anderson says, not one of intentional over-prescription or market pressure to sell more drugs. For example, when Tramadol (a synthetic opioid) was introduced to the American market, it was considered to have no potential for contributing to substance use disorder. But that changed after its release—as with many drugs new to market—when hidden side effects and statistical outliers were discovered.

“There have been some missteps in determining the potential for substance use disorder,” Dering-Anderson says, adding adamantly that deliberate misdirection is not the issue. “The FDA approved the Tramadol label based on studies that did not show this was a problem. Now it’s a problem, and they did all of the correct post-market things to send out new warnings to change their labeling.”

More often the problem is selective participation in treatment. Patients may avoid physical therapy or exercise, preferring the quicker results of opiates.

Jessie Thompson works in the front lines of substance use disorder treatment as a counselor at Lutheran Family Services. Her observation is that older patients may have been prescribed opiates for so long they might not necessarily realize that they are addicted.

“Sometimes I think they have pain and maybe the pain is not as bad as it was, or there are other treatment modalities that haven’t been prescribed because they’ve had chronic pain for so long,” Thompson says.

Stretching, exercise, and rest are often part of any recovery plan, but may fall by the wayside while medication takes front stage.

Thompson and Dering-Anderson agree that the pendulum has swung both ways and that, over the decades, doctors have been alternately leery of prescribing opiates for pain and then encouraged to do more to manage pain.

Dering-Anderson says seniors should know they do not have to be in pain, that not all pain medications lead to substance use disorder, and that following a complete regimen of treatment can reduce a patient’s drug load.

“If the prescriber and the pharmacists recommend ibuprofen [which is not considered addictive], give that a try, but do all of the other things that go along with pain management,” she says. “You need to rest, do your exercises, massage therapy, go to physical therapy, because it is with those professions that we have a chance at reducing your drug load and to keep you safe.”

There are many variables that go into addiction. Life circumstances, relationship status, genetic predisposition, type of substance, and medical conditions can all be factors contributing to substance use disorder. But one factor in avoiding addiction is vigilance.


Visit unmc.edu or lfsneb.org for more information about addiction resources at UNMC and Lutheran Family Services.

This article first appeared in the January/February 2019 edition of 60PLUS in Omaha MagazineTo receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Way, Way Offshore

February 13, 2019 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Kristen Macdissi knows it isn’t easy being a thalassophile (a lover of the sea) in a state that “doesn’t coast.” It’s not the least of her afflictions, though.

Macdissi’s love for mountains compelled her to move from her hometown in upstate New York to Colorado as a young adult. “I was skiing before I walked,” she admits. “I’m drawn to mountains and waves.”

“My family bred adventure into me,” she says, adding that they spent a great deal of time outdoors as a child, going camping, riding horses, playing outside, boating, and sailing. “Adventure and the outdoors go hand in hand. ‘Adventure’ is different from ‘thrilling.’ Adventure can just mean being outside in silence.”

While living in Colorado, she mulled over her options. Should she go to law school or pursue her master’s degree? As it turned out, Nebraska—with its complete absence of ocean and mountains—was calling out to her. The University of Nebraska Medical Center offered an administration position that also allowed her to pursue a master’s in political science at UNO. 

Soon, Macdissi realized the Omaha area had a lot to offer—and that many residents don’t even realize it. “Omaha’s a good area with many opportunities,” she says. “There’s good camping and good trails.” While impossible to summon ocean and mountains in Omaha, she quickly found plenty of outdoor adventures available locally. It’s part of the reason why she and her husband started offering outfitter services at Lake Cunningham.

Neighborhood Offshore, Macdissi’s board shop and boutique resulted from the evolution of the outfitter services. “We started as an entirely mobile service, an experienced-based outfitter specializing in stand-up paddleboard,” Macdissi says. She then moved on to offering retail items online, but it wasn’t quite enough for customers who were eager to pursue more outdoor adventures. A shop at Lake Cunningham soon followed, but it wasn’t long before Neighborhood Offshore needed a bigger space to fulfill her vision of a board shop offering retail, meditation sessions, surfing classes, and more.

She wanted a place locals and visitors alike could rely on for guidance about outdoor adventures in the Omaha and surrounding area. Neighborhood Offshore frequently receives calls from people visiting Omaha who want to find an outdoor adventure but are at a loss as to where to turn. “I’m happy to field calls about what to do in Omaha,” she says. She’s figured out where adventure lies in the state and she is eager to share.

A GoPro Mountain Games competitor in 2017 and 2018 (racing down rapids in Colorado’s Gore Creek with the down-river stand-up paddleboard sprint), Macdissi leads by example with her kids so they can enjoy adventures together, much like when she was growing up. “It’s important for our kids to see this is normal,” she says. “We have to normalize being outside so we can create future outdoor stewards. If we make the outdoors fun, they will be more likely to respect and protect nature in the future.” Her 8-year-old daughter recently tried out whitewater stand-up paddleboard and her 4-year-old surfs. “Surfing takes time and patience. It takes waiting,” says the proud mother. 

Board sports also require problem-solving and persistence, Macdissi says. Perhaps that’s why she was able to persistently and patiently discover the adventures here in Omaha.


Visit neighborhoodoffshore.com for more information.

For more information about retreats with the company, read Omaha Magazine’s travelogue: “Costa Rican Surf Retreat with Omaha’s Neighborhood Offshore”

This article was printed in the March/April edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Kristen Macdissi with paddleboard

Kristen Macdissi

Gifts of Life

January 4, 2019 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

To describe life with cystic fibrosis, Dan Gerdes starts by talking about a frog. Specifically, a frog put into a pot of water that’s slowly brought to a boil.

“It creeps up on you,” Gerdes says. “You just get slowly and slowly sicker and sicker and you never realize how far you’ve come from point A.”

For Gerdes, point A came when he was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis as a baby. Back then, his mother could dislodge the mucus collecting in his lungs by cupping her hand and patting his back. As the disease advanced, Gerdes had to use a long-handled percussor, then a vest that inflated to force loose the thick substance blocking his airways.

The water grew warm, then hot.

Gerdes had to use inhalants. The mucus collected in his stomach, requiring medicine to aid digestion. It attacked his pancreas, and Gerdes became diabetic at age 15. Infections that rooted in his lungs forced occasional hospital stays. By 2012, Gerdes was taking antibiotics intravenously every other week and enduring hour-and-a-half long treatments three to four times a day. He was coughing up more than a liter of mucus each day.

The disease ravaged his body, then his spirit.

“At first, I was pretty positive. I was involved in all kinds of sports and stuff. I wasn’t going to let it beat me,” Gerdes says. “But as it got worse and worse, it got darker and darker. Like to the point where I just felt worthless because I couldn’t contribute anything.”

The water was nearing a boil. Gerdes was dying.

The only way he could live, though, was if somebody else died. Gerdes needed that person’s lungs to replace his own diseased ones.

This life-saving exchange happens quite often. In the United States, 34,770 organ transplants were performed in 2017 (244 of those in Nebraska) according to Nebraska Organ Recovery.

Dr. Alan Langnas, a transplant surgeon at Nebraska Medicine and director of the Center of Transplantation for the University of Nebraska Medical Center, has performed more than 1,000 liver transplants in his 30-plus-year career. With each operation, he is mindful of the deep sacrifice that made it possible.

“At the end of the day, what makes this incredibly special is the deceased donor and families making difficult decisions at a difficult time,” Langnas says. “Or living donors making donations and willing to lay on an operating table and give people an organ for someone they don’t know.”

Currently, more than 114,000 people in the U.S. are waiting for a life-saving organ transplant—400-plus in Nebraska. This year, more than 7,000 of them will die.

Gerdes is among the fortunate. His story, and others, illustrate the good that can come from grief, life from death.

Lungs for Dan Gerdes

Gerdes was dying, but he kept telling himself that “I was not that bad.” So when doctors in 2014 told him he needed a lung transplant, “It kind of broadsided me.”

His reaction after that might surprise some.

“For a long time I told myself that I never wanted to get a transplant because of that really dark aspect of my life that I just thought…I wasn’t producing anything with my life,” Gerdes says. “That I didn’t deserve it.”

But during yet another hospital stay, Nebraska Medicine doctors convinced him to begin the long process of testing to see if he was a viable recipient candidate. On Aug. 4, 2016—Gerdes’ 27th birthday—he was put on a waiting list for a set of lungs.

Just five days later, he was called to the hospital—new lungs were waiting for him. The transplant was successful. Today, Gerdes breathes easy. “It’s night and day,” Gerdes says. “There’s really no comparison. I don’t have to do those treatments, and I have more energy than I ever did since I was a child.”

It was the loss of someone else’s child—Bryan Clauson—that gave him life. An IndyCar driver, Clauson died from injuries sustained during a national midget car dirt track race in Kansas. He died at Bryan Medical Centre in Lincoln, Nebraska. He was 27.

Gerdes first heard of Clauson a few days after his transplant. A friend had learned of Clauson’s death and organ donation. He called Gerdes to ask if he now had “race car driver lungs.”

“I thought he was kind of trolling me,” Gerdes says. “I hadn’t heard anything about Bryan Clauson.”

Soon thereafter, Clauson’s family wrote an introductory letter to Gerdes. But Gerdes’ mother, in the hecticness of the operation and a move to Bellevue to be closer to her son, misplaced the unopened letter. She found it about a year later. Gerdes read it on Dec. 24, 2017. The next day, Christmas morning, he sent a Facebook message to Clauson’s father, Tim. Four months later, Gerdes met the Clausons at a charity walk in Bellevue.

“It was kind of nerve-wracking to an extent, because the event still I struggle with,” Gerdes says. “How do you tell somebody thank-you that has given you your entire life back but at the same time it was somebody they loved an extreme amount? It’s really hard to tell them thank-you enough.”

He thanked them in part simply by breathing. A nurse who had been with Clauson at his death also was at the reunion. She brought the stethoscope used to listen to Clauson’s heart and lungs during his final moments. Clauson’s family used it to listen to Bryan’s lungs pumping strong and steady in Gerdes.

“One of the first things I explained to them is how it sounded really clear,” Gerdes says. “Before that my cystic fibrosis lungs would have sounded like a lot of cracking and popping.”

It was the sound of life.

Bryan Clauson’s Family

Life changed irrevocably for Diana Clauson and her family the day her son, Bryan, died. “You just sit there and it’s stuck in your face a lot, death in general,” she says. “Especially when you’re not prepared.”

That said, the Clausons have talked frequently about how different—in a worse way—their lives would be had Bryan had not been an organ donor.

“As tragic and as devastated we were as a family, when we left that hospital knowing he was going to help five lives continue, that was this little light at the end of a very, very dark tunnel. I think what turned my corner was just knowing that he was able to help these people continue their life. Otherwise, I think I’d still be in a pretty dark place.”

The Clausons since have devoted themselves to turning Bryan’s selfless act into thousands of other selfless acts as they encourage others to become organ and tissue donors. His sister, Taylor, now works for the Indiana Donor Network, which started the organization Driven2SaveLives to promote organ donations as a partnership with IndyCar driver Stefan Wilson (whose brother, Justin Wilson, died in a racing accident in 2015). Bryan was the second driver honored through the program. His parents have also become active advocates for organ donation and often speak at races and other events.

They’ve been wildly successful, too. In the two years since Bryan’s death they’ve had more than 8,000 people sign up to become donors—a huge number in the industry.

Really, though, the Clausons only needed one life saved to have realized healing from the tragedy of Bryan’s death. That came with their first encounter with one of the five people who received one of Bryan’s organs, Dan Alexander of Papillion.

“It was pretty overwhelming,” Diana Clauson says. “Hearing Brian’s heart beating again…that was probably the best part of it all.”

A Heart for Dan Alexander

Dan Alexander, heart recipient

A retired lieutenant colonel with the U.S. Army Signal Corps and a veteran of Operation Desert Storm, Dan Alexander has a particular fondness for the military credo, “Leave No Man Behind.”

Bryan Clauson, Alexander says, did just that:

“I told Bryan’s dad, ‘Every breath I take, I try to honor Bryan for what he did.’ He did not leave me behind. He could have. He could have not checked that box. But he didn’t. He’s my hero.”

Alexander, who was physically fit, had needed a new heart since July 2013, when he suffered a massive heart attack. “What some people call a widow maker,” he says. The medical team fought four hours to keep him alive. Three times, his heart stopped. When he awoke from a coma 10 days later, he was told it was a miracle.

Another miracle was to come.

Alexander lived for nearly three years with his heart regulated by a left ventricular assist device. He also was put on the waiting list for a new heart. On Aug. 9, 2016, Alexander got the call—it was time to get a new heart. The surgery went well and his recovery has been “incredibly good.” He was out of the hospital in nine days and has not been back for a stay since.

He’s also become a racing car fan.

Clauson’s family first met Alexander in April 2017 at Alexander’s house. An ESPN film crew was on hand to document the moment. Diana Clauson listened to her son’s heartbeat inside what until then was a stranger.

“Incredibly beautiful. Satisfying. Lots of tears of joy,” says Alexander, 65. “There were a lot of stories told that afternoon. What I took away from that day is we’re committed to each other.”

Living Organ Donors & Kidney Chains

Sue Venteicher, kidney donor

Gerdes’ worry that he wasn’t worthy of a transplant echoes in what people asked Sue Venteicher when they learned she was giving up one of her kidneys—to a stranger.

“I’ve had people ask me, ‘What if you found out it went to someone who was in prison?’” Venteicher says. “I said, ‘So they should be in pain and their family should have to worry about them dying?’ One person is not more important than another person.”

Venteicher sparked donations impacting not just one person, but 18. In February 2016, she was part of the largest living-donor kidney transplant chain in Nebraska history. A kidney chain matches donors with compatible recipients. Venteicher started the chain when she decided to donate her kidney in memory of a friend’s son who had died from kidney failure. Nine patients received kidneys from nine living donors over five days of surgeries at Nebraska Medicine.

Venteicher, a wife, mother of seven, and grandmother, was home two days after the surgery and felt fully recovered within two months. “In some ways, I’m healthier than I was two years ago,” says Venteicher, who recently retired after a long nursing career. She hates water but drinks more of it than ever to make sure her one kidney filters efficiently. She’s lost 20 pounds. “I think I appreciate my body a little bit more.”

So does Dennis Molfese of Bennet, Nebraska—the man who received Venteicher’s kidney. Molfese had been on a kidney transplant waiting list for more than three years. But he was running out of time. Molfese’s kidney was functioning at 4 percent. His blood pressure was running 240/180. If he didn’t die from kidney failure, it could have come from a devastating stroke.

Molfese’s friend, David Hansen, offered his kidney, but was not a match. In stepped Venteicher.

“She is my hero,” Molfese says. “An incredibly selfless individual who literally put her life on the line for someone else. In Susan’s case, I was a stranger, not even a name. Just someone in need of a special part of her body that she decided to give away, even at the risk of her own life.”

Hansen’s kidney went to another recipient in the 18-person chain. The 18 donors/recipients met five months after the transplants. Molfese and Venteicher didn’t get to speak a lot that day, which included a press conference and perhaps 200 or more family members in attendance. “I was thrilled to see he looked so well,” Venteicher recalls.

Molfese already had written a letter to Venteicher. “He wrote that the hardest thing about being sick was to look into his wife’s eyes and see the pain and the worry and concern every single day. Now, since he had his kidney, he sees nothing but joy in his wife and excitement for the future.”

They’ve become friends. When Molfese received an award related to his work as a neuropsychologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, he invited Venteicher to the ceremony. She sat with his family.

“Without Susan, I definitely would not have been alive to be nominated or to receive such a once-in-a-lifetime honor,” Molfese says.

The Gift That Keeps Giving

Cindy Schabow, heart recipient

Cindy Schabow missed out on her cruise, but she would have missed out on a lot more had she not received a heart transplant in May 1987.

Her own heart had been slowly dying since 1981 when it was weakened by a virus. The damage was discovered while she was pregnant. Schabow gave birth to a daughter and lived with relatively stable health for the next five years. “I continued to work and live life and take some medicine but really didn’t think much about it,” she says.

But then her heart began to weaken, requiring a pacemaker. That went well for about a year before her heart became enlarged and sicker. Her cardiologist said she needed a new heart.

“I said, ‘We’re going on a cruise this summer, and when I get back we’ll talk about it,’” Schabow recalls. “She said, ‘You will die by the end of the summer if you don’t get a new heart.’

“The idea of a heart transplant was so beyond anything I ever thought about. That got my attention.”

On Memorial Day 1987, Schabow flew to Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center in Houston to wait to have the procedure. But she grew sicker and sicker. She was put into ICU. “I  could pretty much tell we were toward the end of the line,” she says. After eight weeks of waiting, Schabow was notified that a heart had been donated—and just in time.

“They told me I wouldn’t have lived for 24 hours without the transplant,” she says. “It was immediate joy. I’m going to get to live to see my daughter grow up. At the same time, profound sadness since I knew the only reason this could happen was someone lost somebody very precious to them and had made this amazing, generous decision to let me have this heart.”

The heart came from a 15-year-old Louisiana boy who had died in a swimming accident. “I didn’t find out much more than that,” Schabow says. She wrote the family on occasion but never heard back. When she reached 30 years with her heart, she decided to write again and let the donor’s family know the heart, amazingly, is still going strong. She did a bit of detective work and was able to connect with the donor’s sister.

They talked on the phone, texted, and became Facebook friends. They’re planning to meet one day soon.

“They were happy to hear a part of him still lives,” Schabow says. He was athletic and a talented football player, Schabow’s been told. He was friendly and outgoing.

He would be a middle-aged man now. Had he not donated his heart, he’d only be remembered by his family. Maybe a few friends.

Instead, after 31 years, he is still remembered as a hero across state lines in Nebraska. Schabow will never forget him. Neither will her daughter or grandchildren.

“I’m just very, very privileged to carry on his heart,” she says.


Organ Donor Reasons

One deceased organ donor can save up to eight lives. One tissue donor can improve the quality of life or save an additional 100 people. Nebraskans appreciate this. Research conducted by Nebraska Organ Recovery in fall 2016 indicated that 98 percent of Nebraskans support organ and tissue donation, but only about 56 percent of eligible Nebraskans are registered. Why aren’t more individuals registered?

Here are answers to some misunderstandings/misconceptions (provided by Nebraska Organ Recovery):

  • I’m too old to register/donate. Anyone 16 or older can register for deceased organ donation. There are no upper age restrictions.
  • I have a health issue that prevents me from registering/donating. There are no medical conditions that restrict someone from registering as a donor.
  • I’ve used illegal drugs and/or I smoke and drink alcohol regularly. Use of illegal drugs and excessive smoking or drinking does not disqualify someone from donating. Drinking and drug use can impact specific organs, but oftentimes other organs and tissues are still viable.
  • I can’t give blood, so I can’t donate. The majority of individuals who are restricted from giving blood can still donate organs and tissues.
  • I can’t afford donation. There is no cost to the donor’s family for donation.
  • I can’t have an open-casket funeral if I’m a donor. A viewing or open-casket funeral is almost always possible following donation. Surgical incisions are covered by clothing and great care is taken to ensure the donor’s appearance is as normal as possible.
  • I can only register at the DMV. Although the majority of individuals register while obtaining their driver’s license, anyone can register (or update their registry) online anytime at nedonation.org.

Living Donations

In 2017, 6,187 people in the United States were living donors. In Nebraska, a living donor must be at least 19 years old. There is no fee for an individual to be screened for living donation. To be screened for living donation in Nebraska, contact Nebraska Medicine at 800-401-4444 or 402-559-5000.

Below is a list of organs that can be donated, and the number of patients waiting for them in the United States and Nebraska (in parentheses):

  • Kidney: 102,701 (204)
  • Liver: 14,034 (152)
  • Pancreas: 903 (14)
  • Kidney/Pancreas: 1,669 (6)
  • Heart: 3,900 (58)
  • Lung: 1,458 (1)
  • Intestine: 248 (19)

Visit nedonation.org for more information.

This article was printed in the January/February 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.


Correction: the print edition of this article incorrectly attributed the creation of Driven2SaveLives to Bryan Clausen’s family and the Indiana Doctor Network. Although the Clausens are active with the organization, Bryan was the second IndyCar driver and organ donor to be honored through the program (not the first). Driven2SaveLives started as a partnership between the Indiana Donor Network and IndyCar driver Stefan Wilson after his brother, Justine Wilson, died in a racing accident in 2015. 

Sexual Justice Warrior

December 21, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Sex videos are popular on the internet. Even academic ones. Just ask Dr. Sofia Jawed-Wessel, an associate professor at the University of Nebraska-Omaha’s School of Health & Kinesiology.

Her 2016 TEDx talk has been viewed more than 2.5 million times online. In the lecture, Jawed-Wessel discusses society’s objectification of women as tools of men’s sexual pleasure (with little value placed on their own satisfaction), and how this view dramatically changes during pregnancy to one of non-sexual beings whose sole purpose is reproduction.

She has become an internationally recognized expert in her field of research. In November 2018, Jawed-Wessel traveled to Islamabad, Pakistan, to present the keynote address at the country’s National Institute of Psychology annual conference.

“My niche area of research focuses on understanding the sexual health of women and couples as they transition into parenthood by documenting sexual behaviors, sexual function, relationship adjustment, and sexual changes during pregnancy and after childbirth,” she explains.

On top of her professorship, Jawed-Wessel is the associate director of the Midlands Sexual Health Research Collaborative. She also holds a joint appointment with the Women and Gender Studies program at UNO and a courtesy appointment in the College of Public Health at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Her teachings utilize a sex-positive and pleasure-inclusive approach to providing medically accurate, comprehensive sexuality education to her undergraduate students.

Jawed-Wessel, 35, didn’t initially set her sights on becoming a sex researcher. The daughter of Pakistani immigrants, she was born in the U.S. and raised with three siblings in a traditional family in Indiana.

“My mom stayed at home and my father worked multiple jobs,” she says. “We were a working-class family.”

Seeing her parents struggle likely prompted the inquisitive youngster to make education a priority. She went on to earn three bachelor’s degrees—in biology, psychology, and English—from Indiana University.

She volunteered as an assistant in a few labs and says she “fell in love” with sex science. “The specific focus on sex during and after pregnancy came to me as my relationship with feminism grew,” she adds. “I did not like how we divorce sexuality and motherhood, and the more I worked with pregnant women, I saw how their psyche was impacted by this forced de-sexualization.”

She went on to earn a Master of Public Health and a Ph.D. in health behavior, also from Indiana University, home to the Kinsey Institute (named after its founder, the famous American biologist and sex researcher Alfred Kinsey). She joined the UNO faculty in 2012.

Jawed-Wessel says her long-term research goal is to understand how women’s intimate relationships are impacted by sexual and maternal objectification. She also believes in “conducting research that will help promote women’s and LGBTQ rights and reproductive justice values, and, therefore, science that will support or push back against policy and systems-level change,” she says. With this public engagement in mind, she has provided expert testimony for the Nebraska Unicameral, the Nebraska Board of Education, and the Omaha Public School Board of Education.

For her work, Jawed-Wessel was a 2017 recipient of the Women’s Center for Advancement’s Tribute to Women Award (and was the luncheon’s keynote speaker in 2018). She was also named among the 2017 Ten Outstanding Young Omahans by the Omaha Jaycees.

In 2018, her Midlands Sexual Health Research Collaborative received one of the first Equality Fund grants ($40,000) from the Omaha Community Foundation to conduct work that will increase LGBTQ equality in Omaha. “Community engagement and my research go hand in hand; one without the other means lesser impact,” she says. “I want to see my science put into action.”

When not teaching, conducting research, or traveling for speaking engagements, Jawed-Wessel says she enjoys hosting dinner parties for close friends. “If I cook you an elaborate Pakistani meal, that means I really love you,” she confides. She’s also the proud mom of two young boys, 9 and 3.


Find more information about the Midlands Sexual Health Research Collaborative on Facebook at @unomshrc and Twitter at @1mshrc.

This article was printed in the January/February 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Correction: Dr. Sofia Jawed-Wessel is an “associate professor,” not “assistant professor,” as noted in the print edition. 

Nebraska Medical Orchestra

December 20, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

On a cold night in November, musicians in a new orchestra gather in a classroom at the Strauss Performing Arts Center. They are rehearsing the recognizable march from The Nutcracker. Only, in the song’s first few measures, they wait a few additional beats in silence due to the missing members of the woodwind section.

It’s a medical orchestra, one where its performers have day jobs in hospitals or in front of classrooms. Many of the musicians are the medical students in those classrooms.

No one passes judgment if an entire section skips rehearsal before a particularly stressful test. That’s not what this orchestra is about.

This collaboration between University of Nebraska Medical Center and University of Nebraska-Omaha School of Music formed to increase exposure to the arts with the belief that the arts reduce stress and may improve performance in medical careers. Part of the ongoing program has placed student performers in hospital lobbies, and small ensembles have performed in a Thursday concert series at the Buffett Cancer Center.   

Known as the Nebraska Medical Orchestra, the collaboration began in April 2018. Similar programs exist in medical universities around the country.

“This is fun,” explains one of the cellists, Dr. Matthew Rizzo, chair of the UNMC Department of Neurological Sciences and director of the Mind & Brain Health Initiative. He acknowledges that many musicians in the group are tired by the time they get to rehearsal, and they may not have even practiced during the week. And it still works out for the orchestra.

“They just come here and do the best they can…It’s a great experience. You don’t have to be Mozart,” he says.

Rizzo was in a similar medical orchestra when he was at the University of Iowa; he was one of the key drivers of starting this orchestra in Omaha.

Nebraska Medical Orchestra consists of about 50 dedicated amateur musicians, describes Dr. Steven Wengel, assistant vice chancellor for campus wellness at UNO and UNMC. They are medical students, professors, doctors, nurses, and other members of medical teams, including medical billers. For a few hours a week, they step outside of their demanding roles and pick up their instrument of choice.

As conductor, Matthew Brooks (a doctor of musical arts), the director of orchestras at UNO, chooses the repertoire they perform and handles the artistic questions that pop up with running an orchestra. He keeps rehearsals light-hearted while fine-tuning musicians’ abilities.

“This has been a great opportunity for them to make their way back into music,” says Brooks, speaking a month prior to their first performance at the Buffett Cancer Research Center on Dec. 5.

Maddie Olson, a second-year Ph.D. student in the cancer research doctoral program, was among about 130 people to apply for a chair in the orchestra. She began playing cello in an orchestra at 9 years old, and continued it for a year in college while she pursued her interest in science. She says she feels lucky to have the opportunity to play again.

“I always wanted to keep cello in my life,” Olson says.

The medical orchestra is one part of a multipronged mission, describes Washington Garcia, director of the UNO School of Music (and doctor of musical arts). The first part is to bring more music into the medical community in Omaha, which is the stage the universities are in now.

Eventually, university officials hope to begin the research phase of the orchestra, measuring how it impacts the musicians and what its impact on the medical community may be.

Wengel says the medical humanities is a relatively new field of study, but a popular one. Already at UNO there is a minor in it.

Thus far, Wengel and colleagues know one thing for certain: When members of a health-care team are interested and involved in the arts, they are happier. The question is: Does it make them better clinicians?

“Anecdotally, it’s been a very positive experience,” Wengel says. “They’re exercising a different part of their mind, heart, and soul.”

A 2018 article in the Journal of General Internal Medicine attempted to measure the humanities’ impact on medical students. It didn’t seem to matter if it was passive exposure, like going to a concert, or more active involvement, such as playing an instrument. The finding was the same: The more exposure the students had to the humanities, the higher they rated on different tests in areas like empathy, problem-solving, 3D spatial reasoning, and tolerance for ambiguity.

“Basically, the more exposure to humanities, the higher they scored,” Wengel says.

Besides the research this orchestra could contribute to, there are artistic possibilities to consider. Brooks said the program may grow to have guest artists, they may tour, or there could be exchanges with other medical orchestras.

None of those possibilities are on the minds of the performers, though. For now, they are content fine-tuning those staccato rhythms in The Nutcracker.

And, more pressing, they’re thinking about acing that exam next week.


Visit unmc.edu and unomaha.edu for more information about the partnering universities.

A Literary Prescription for Success

December 19, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Dr. Lydia Kang glanced at her ringing phone. It was her literary agent (who typically emailed). The unexpected phone call delivered some shocking news.

“We have a preemptive offer from Penguin,” the agent said.

Kang jumped up and down, silently screaming. “Yes, I’ll take the deal,” the physician recalls answering. Her writing career launched that day, Sept. 7, 2011, from her office at the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Wittson Hall.

Her first young adult science fiction novel, Control, landed on bookstore shelves nearly two years after that pivotal phone call. The sequel, Catalyst, followed two years later.

Then…nothing. A three-year drought between book contracts. Kang tracked her queries, near misses, and request rates. Her diagnosis after dissecting the evidence? Wow. That’s a lot of rejection.

It was not the first setback in Kang’s literary career. She had sent other manuscripts to agents that were never picked up. She knew the harsh realities of the business. Like the title of her first book, authors can’t control what pitch will work.

“I don’t do well with sitting and doing nothing,” says Kang, a mother of three who writes in between her parenting obligations and her jobs as an internal medicine specialist and assistant professor at UNMC.

Luckily, Kang is a prolific researcher and fast writer. It wasn’t long before her author bylines continued to grow. Her next book was A Beautiful Poison (published in August 2017).

Kang also paired up with freelance journalist Nate Pedersen to try her hand at nonfiction with Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything. The book, released in October 2017, plunges into the darker history of medicine.

Need a cure for drowning? A smoke enema will do the trick to save someone from the brink of death. Ever hear the phrase, “blowing smoke up your ass?” Now you know it came from 18th-century medicine. Human blood was used for all sorts of ailments, such as fevers or hair loss. Readers can find a yummy blood jam recipe from 1679. Have achy joints? How about a little human fat harvested from a corpse?

Evident in many of Kang’s books, her medical background comes in handy when characters are injured or near death. “My writing life can take these characters to an exciting critical level because no lives are at stake,” she says.

She steered away from the macabre with November Girl, a work of literary fantasy, published a month after Quackery. It won the 2018 Nebraska Book Award for Best Young Adult Fiction.

Many of her ideas spring from falling down a Wiki rabbit hole searching for random information, sometimes on morbid topics like grave robbing. Medical schools needed fresh corpses to perform autopsies in the 1800s. Body snatchers, known as “resurrectionists,” received lucrative sums of money to dig up the remains of the recently departed. 

Kang’s next book resurrected these gruesome fascinations in print. The work of historical fiction, The Impossible Girl, was published in fall 2018.

Protagonist Cora Lee sneaks into funerals during the day while stealing bodies of those with peculiar anomalies at night. The young lady has her own secret. She was born with two hearts and must keep one step ahead of those who want to murder her. The medical parts in the book, including Cora’s birth, are described as only a doctor could pen. Grisly details such as “the pool of bloody birth water staining the sheets” and “ignoring the black, muddy stool already staining the fabric” are realistic and vivid. 

“You have to have a strong stomach for some things,” Kang admits.

She returned to her science fiction roots in Toxic, which came out in November. The protagonist, Hana, was secretly genetically engineered on a sentient biological spaceship. When the entire crew disappears, and as the ship dies, Hana must confront a team of mercenaries and her own blossoming romance.

Although busy with so many books, Kang has learned to balance her time. She still loves seeing patients at the Durham Outpatient Center. And writing is an artistic complement to the medical side of her life.

“[It] brings me so much incandescent happiness when I bring books to life. There is nothing like that,” she says.

Kang, 47, is currently piecing together a large map of 1899 Manhattan as research for her next book. Having attended Columbia University and the New York School of Medicine, she sets many of her stories in the city.

Her uncredited writing partner in all these projects is a black and white shih-poo named Piper, who loves laying down on her research materials. Kang hopes the dog doesn’t discover the maps.

This next book project was born from her research from Quackery. It is a dark tale about a drug-addicted heiress who unearths some vampire-like corpses. Tentatively titled Opium and Absinthe, the book is slated for 2020 publication.


Visit lydiakang.com for more information.

This article was printed in the January/February edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Head shot Dr. Lydia Kang in lab coat with stethoscope

Curing Cancer One Machine At a Time

July 26, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Driving down Leavenworth or Dodge streets, the average person might see the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center, located on the UNMC/Nebraska Medicine campus, as something of a museum because of its notable artwork and architecture. 

It is also vital to note the advanced medical technology used to detect and treat cancer at UNMC/Nebraska Medicine. 

Mihaela Girbacica is a registered nurse who works directly with cancer patients every day and depends on smoothly functioning tech to do her job.

“I sit next to a patient one-on-one for their entire treatment,” Girbacica says. “We become like a family. I bond with them, I know what makes them comfortable and [feel] taken care of when they are with us, and when things go well, I’m so happy to be there for that, too.”

Having a support network (or favorite nurse) is a key facet to fighting the cancer battle, but finding and targeting cancerous tumors is at the forefront of fighting the war. 

Dr. Chad LaGrange demonstrates an MRI Ultrasound Fusion Biopsy

Dr. Chad LaGrange, a urologist with the cancer center, has helped to revolutionize the discovery of prostate cancers by using an MRI Ultrasound Fusion Biopsy. Essentially, this procedure, which takes place at Nebraska Medicine’s Lauritzen Outpatient Center, blends the technology of an ultrasound and MRI by combining one image with another, overlaid, image to fuse into a 3-D view.

LaGrange says this tool allows technicians to view a clearer image of the area they must work on to remove all of the cancer. The fusion biopsies also remove needless worry and unwarranted medical procedures if patients are not diagnosed with life-threatening cancers.

“It’s been a night-to-day difference,” LaGrange says. “Patients will come into our office to find out that their regular biopsies didn’t tell the whole story. Our equipment ensures that part of the major diagnosis doesn’t go missed.” 

While this computer-aided detection has been used for mammography and breast cancer screenings for years, its assistance in prostate cancer detection has reimagined—and reimaged—the way doctors analyze potential deadly lesions. 

From easily treatable small cancers to aggressive life-threatening cancers, the next step can often lead to radiation and chemotherapy treatment.

Dr. Charles Enke, chair of Radiation Oncology, regularly uses the department’s Varian True Beam Linear Accelerator, a radiation device that delivers treatment to patients 75 percent faster than any other previous piece of tech used at Nebraska Medicine. 

“We’ve gotten up to seeing 115 patients in one day because of this much more elegant system,” Enke says. “The delivery time for this kind of treatment has decreased from 18 minutes to about three, meaning we have the ability to treat more patients with less machines.”

The Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center is home to three of these machines, which Enke says has increased the speed and quality of most radiation plans. Treatment has transformed from a six-week plan to five simple treatments, maintaining a Nebraska Medicine culture of patient-centered care. 

Enke also has the ability to work from home using the machine’s remote system. This makes room for peace, quiet, and well-rested research, resulting in an environment where work done in the office directly affects patients. 

People often assume a cure for cancer will be a revelation; a singular miracle. However, that in-office work, albeit common and routine, is what will bring further knowledge to the professionals. Curing cancer is a daily goal, comprised of small and strong steps, increased technological advancements, and a medical team ready to work. 


To learn more, visit nebraskamed.com.

This article was printed in the August/September 2018 edition of B2B.

A Varian True Beam Linear Accelerator at the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center

Legislating Health Care Solutions for Small Businesses

February 4, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Health care consultant Sean McGuire has a background in political science. “My first job out of college was working in Washington, D.C., which is what I always wanted to do,” McGuire says.

The Iowa native worked on the staff of the Senate Committee on Finance, headed by Chuck Grassley, from 2005-2008. This committee oversees legislation around health care, such as Medicare and Medicaid.

McGuire continued to educate himself about health care legislation, even after coming back to Omaha. When McGuire read the Affordable Care Act (known as Obamacare), he realized that the gray areas and sweeping size of the ACA would cause confusion.

“I recognized that this law is probably one of the biggest pieces of legislation that has ever been passed in our lifetime,” McGuire says.

McGuire then worked as the UNMC health policy adviser. A large part of this job was to inform the organization on the impact of the Affordable Care Act on the university, its hospital, and the local community. The job also included organizing quarterly briefings for local media.

“Health care reform was just starting to take shape, and Sean played a lead role on a committee that included some of the Medical Center’s brightest minds…The committee served as a resource for the entire state to help people better understand what was happening with health care reform,” says Tom O’Connor, senior associate public relations director for the UNMC.

McGuire understood that the ACA would have the most impact on doctors, small hospitals, and small businesses.

“They are there to provide a service—they’re not there to figure out government regulations and compliance.” McGuire says. “Those [people] are really who we enjoy working with the most.”

To offer solutions for health care for those small businesses, McGuire founded E.D. Bellis in 2011.

E.D. Bellis is named for McGuire’s great-great-great-grandfather, who came to Omaha in 1870. Bellis was recommended by a talent agent in New York to be the first organist for Kountze Memorial Lutheran Church and would be described as the “finest organ player west of the Missouri” in his obituary.

“He was a very influential person in the Omaha community that brought music and culture to a city that really needed it,” McGuire says. “I felt that he was the perfect face for what we’re trying to build…we’re trying to bring something new, which is information and understanding to people that need it, just as he brought culture and music to a rough pioneer town.”

In 2013, E.D. Bellis began an agency and broker partnership program with the insurance company Guardian. In that capacity, ED Bellis lends their health care law and compliance expertise to customers of Guardian as a complimentary service.

“They’re unique to the marketplace,” says Doug Gillespie, group sales consultant at Guardian.

In 2015, they began working throughout Des Moines, and in 2016 they started working with the Quad Cities and Ohio.

In summer 2017, E.D. Bellis branched out to Presque Isle, Maine. It’s an area that has a shortage of health care expertise. Five or six hospitals cover a portion of the state the size of Connecticut.

McGuire liked the fact that they were innovative, exemplified by their participation in the pioneer Accountable Care Organization demonstration. ACOs were eligible for higher reimbursements from Medicaid and Medicare if they met all the required standards of providing higher quality care and keeping their population healthy. While 32 health care systems were selected to take part, only a third of them made money.

E.D. Bellis plans to complement their existing programs and capitalize on new opportunities as the laws change.

“What I believe we are onto is a national concept that could be replicated all across the country,” McGuire says. “If it does, it’s going to prove our concept and we’ll open up in other parts of the country as well.”

McGuire anticipates that Omaha will remain the headquarters for E.D. Bellis, partially because Omaha and Des Moines are insurance and health care-heavy. “Almost every large building all over the Midwest is some sort of insurance,” McGuire says. Yet, many are still in the dark about health care. E.D. Bellis is there to help.

“The Affordable Care Act has caused a lot of problems for a lot of people, but it’s done good things too,” McGuire says. “I didn’t do this to make a buck. I did this to fill a need.”

Visit edbellisinc.com for more information.

This article was printed in the February/March 2018 edition of B2B.

A Professor in Motion Stays in Motion

April 27, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The sun barely penetrated the narrows of the canyon. Kris Berg, Ph.D., scrambled over dusty red rock, carefully avoiding the steep cliffs that plunged down 50 yards on either side of him. History and geology combined with each footprint he left behind.

While most come to Las Vegas to roll the dice, Berg would rather hike with his wife in the outdoors, taking in the natural beauties of the world (which he accomplished during a recent winter trip).

Berg is a self-described exercise nut. The physical fitness bug struck him at a young age. When Berg was just 12 years old, he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. Rather than a healthy boy, people saw him as fragile and sick. In high school, Berg’s coach even kicked him off the football team.

“I’ll show you. I’ll be so healthy that no one would do that again,” Berg thought.

After his family moved, a new doctor told Berg to experiment. So Berg lived his life, not letting diabetes limit his physical abilities.

“Exercise is such a powerful thing,” he says. “People are always looking for a magic pill. It’s right in front of us.”

He played multiple sports in high school and college. The science behind it all stimulated and fascinated him. With a doctorate in exercise physiology from the University of Missouri in hand, Berg began teaching at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

“Top to bottom, front to back, he is enthusiastic,” former student Robert Buresh says.

Kris Berg, Ph.D.

UNO had no laboratory at the time so Berg developed one with the backing of the dean. Berg, a prolific researcher, made ties with the University of Nebraska Medical Center. He developed an exercise physiology lab geared toward an investigative-driven program which would look at the human body from a scientific angle.

He soon started a special exercise program for Type 1 and 2 diabetes. His own brother had passed away from the disease at 32. Berg spent years of his career dedicated to informing the public on the positives of exercise to help regulate blood sugar.

Berg’s interest never wavered. He tackled osteoporosis next. The Strong Bones Program was born, helping the elderly build up confidence and mobility to avoid falls.

“We were very fortunate Berg initiated this program,” Berg’s former colleague Josie Metal-Corbin says. Although a dancer and yoga enthusiast, 65-year-old Metal-Corbin took the class for the added strength training and sense of community. The classes soon combined into the Adult Fitness Program.

After four books, more than 200 articles, and 45 years at UNO, Berg hung up his tennis shoes last May and retired. However, retirement didn’t stop him from doing what he loves.

Berg still finds time to visit with graduate students who need his help on papers, and he spends two hours or so a day researching.

“I wanted to go on being physically active regardless of age,” Berg explains.

Long and lean at the age of 73, Berg follows a diverse workout plan. He smacks the ball around on the tennis court four or five days a week. The physical and mental “chess match” keeps him sharp. He also still shovels snow, pulls weeds, and hikes.

“I have a tremendous enjoyment of exercise. I never get bored,” Berg says.

At the gym, Berg avoids the machines, preferring resistance training (similar to his classes). He stresses the importance of maintaining coordination and mobility. His goal—for himself and for others—is to prevent age from becoming an obstacle to living life. 

The Adult Fitness Program is open to members of the general public age 50 and older. The supervised fitness class takes place twice a week at UNO’s Health, Physical Education, and Recreation (HPER) Building. The program costs $36 for three months; parking costs $54 for three months. Contact the UNO Exercise Physiology Lab at 402-554-3221 or exphyslab@unomaha.edu to enroll.

Visit unomaha.edu for more information.

The Historian’s Personal Collection

January 8, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Howard Hamilton, 82, has read every issue of every Omaha newspaper dating back to 1854.

The Omaha historian, who was once fluent in 12 languages, moved to the area at age 5 with his family in 1939 and has lived here ever since (with the exception of language immersion studies at Georgetown University and a three-year stint in Pakistan with the U.S. Army).

He remembers how busy downtown Omaha used to be. “At that time, all the way from Leavenworth to Capitol was crowded during the day,” he says, remembering all the shops and the post office at 16th and Dodge streets. “It would be like if you saw a picture of New York City’s Times Square.”

hamilton1It seems fitting that a man who has seen so much of the city during so many phases of time should have a passion for history. Hamilton fondly remembers his third-grade teacher making the students recite all the U.S. presidents, from George Washington up to then-president Truman, every morning. (He can still do it today.)

Hamilton has a particular passion for Omaha history. He taught it for years at Metropolitan Community College. In 1990, he founded and served as the first president of the Trans-Mississippi Exposition Historical Association, named for the 1898 event that brought 2.6 million visitors to the city, one of them U.S. President William McKinley.

Hamilton published a book of 500 trivia stories about Omaha history, as well as a series of calendars with every day of the year marked by an event in Omaha history.

In 2012, he donated thousands of newspaper clippings to The Durham Museum. The collection’s name? The Howard Hamilton Research Archive.

Now retired, he uses his house as a storage space for artifacts he has collected over the years.

A tour of his collection reveals some amazing stuff:

hamilton4A copy of the first issue of The Omaha Daily World from 1885. And a copy of the first issue of the The Omaha World-Herald from 1889.

A piece of human hipbone from Omaha Beach. Hamilton found it when he visited in 2002 and thought it may have come from when the Allies stormed the beaches at D-Day. So, Hamilton brought it back to Nebraska with the intention of donating it to veterans.

(A pathologist at the University of Nebraska Medical Center revealed that it was human, but not from 1944. “This bone is 3,000 years old,” Hamilton says the pathologist told him. The bone likely came from someone who drowned in the Atlantic and washed up on the beach.)

hamilton3A piece of brick from a 1904 Omaha sidewalk that reads: “DON’T SPIT ON SIDEWALK.”

An article about the only man ever to survive being scalped, as well as a picture of the man and a picture of the scalp. The man was at the Plum Creek Massacre and was brought to Omaha afterward. “They attempted to have the scalp replaced after he recovered,” Hamilton says. When that did not work, “they gave it to him, and then he donated it to Omaha.”

These days, Hamilton seems to be feeling good about a pretty incredible find.

U.S. President Grover Cleveland visited Omaha in 1887 because his wife inherited property from a Council Bluffs family. Naturally, The Omaha Daily World devoted front-page coverage to the visit on Oct. 12. But not all of the copies were on newsprint.

“In 1887, [the paper] published this and made five copies on satin,” Hamilton says. Of those five satin copies, Cleveland received one and the heirs of Gilbert Hitchcock, the founder of The Omaha Daily World—who later bought The Omaha Herald and consolidated the two papers to form The Omaha World-Herald—received another.

And one is hanging on Hamilton’s wall, framed and in mint condition.

“It was at an antique store, in an envelope,” Hamilton says. “Twenty dollars.”

The storeowner knew it was original, but thought it was one of hundreds. Now it is behind glass at Hamilton’s house, a shiny newspaper with a story about Cleveland’s visit. The fold lines are prominent in the satin.

“About the time I bought this, I had seen one in Glenwood, Iowa, tattered,” Hamilton says. “But mine was in an envelope, just like this.” 

Visit durhammuseum.org for more information.

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