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Brain Teaser

Honoring the surgeon with a smile

Peter Sheptak stands shoulder to shoulder with one of his "hotshot" residents in the operating room at UPMC Presbyterian. An anesthetized patient lies on his side before them with an incision in his back. As a clinical professor in Pitt’s Department of Neurological Surgery, it’s part of Sheptak’s responsibility to sculpt the next generation of neurosurgeons.

"You just tell me when you think you got everything out," he tells his young protégé, who’s busy repairing the patient’s herniated lumbar disk.

Peter Sheptak

Sheptak watches as the resident skillfully removes the damaged crabmeat-looking tissue and hands it to the nurse. When the resident’s gaze returns to the patient, Sheptak motions to the nurse with a slight tilt of his head and eyes. She knows what he wants her to do, having worked with him many times. She gives him the removed tissue and he conceals it in his latex-gloved hands.

"Okay, this is cleaned up. I really cleaned this guy out," says the resident confidently. "There’s the nerve. It looks great."

The elder doctor leans in to examine the work, his hands cupped together across his chest as if concealing his cards in a game of high-stakes poker.

"Look what I found," he says as he straightens and opens his hands to reveal the discovered tissue.

"What?" the resident stammers, shocked at what he’s seeing. "But ..."

Sheptak smiles; the resident figures out what just happened.

Levity in the operating room like this, which happened several years ago, is an excellent way to keep residents on their toes and reduce stress, says Sheptak. The work that he and his colleagues do is gravely serious. Many operations require them to waltz delicately and dangerously close to the brain and spinal cord nerves. A slight slip of the hand removing a skull base tumor, for example, can have devastating and lasting results. So any opportunity to ease the tension, however brief, is a welcome relief and a must for a neurosurgeon’s state of mind, explains Sheptak. "If you don’t have a sense of humor, you’ll go crazy. It’s easy to get depressed taking care of sick patients a lot."

Today, Sheptak, who is the department’s vice chair, estimates that he has cared for some 14,000 patients during his 35-year career as a surgeon. To acknowledge the doctor who touched so many lives, Pitt has created the Peter E. Sheptak Endowed Chair in Neurological Surgery. The chair will benefit a promising faculty member in the department.

Sheptak, from Butler, Pa., graduated from Pitt’s School of Medicine in 1963 and has been associated with the Department of Neurological Surgery since 1968, training residents and treating patients. He also has been the Pittsburgh Penguins team neurosurgeon since the early 1970s and operated on some of the team’s players, including its biggest star—Mario Lemieux. In fact, one wall in his fourth floor office at Presbyterian features framed photos of Sheptak standing with Penguins players next to the Stanley Cup. Most of the photos include handwritten notes from the hockey players with messages like Thanks, Doc.

Although he retired from surgery last year, his legacy lives on in the approximately 100 residents whom he has helped train—eight of whom, he estimates, are now heads of neurosurgical departments around the country.

Along with the skill to safely navigate through the sometimes tumultuous waves of neurological surgery, he hopes his students have learned how to connect with patients, to sit with them and listen, to make them feel as if they are the most important patients that they will ever treat. And when the going gets tough—and he says it frequently does—he believes he taught his students what they need to do: smile. —Mike Ransdell

Spending Money

Student-driven fund helps classmates pay for books and meals

Lacking the money to buy textbooks, the Pitt freshman does the best he can. He takes volumes of notes in class, borrows books from his classmates whenever possible, and checks out any reserve material his professors leave at the library. Financial aid takes care of his tuition and some of his living expenses, but the high price of books caught him off guard. Unable to assume more debt, he survives as best he can without the books.

Several weeks later, he can afford them, thanks to money he saved from a part-time job. But it may be too late. His grades have wilted. He wonders if college is right for him.

Stories like this are all too real, according to senior social work major Candice Williams, vice president of the Freedom Mentoring and Leadership Development Honor Society, Pitt’s first minority student honor society. She and her classmates have seen financial hardships handicap too many students, particularly minority students, who struggle to pay for the unforeseen costs of university life. And many—whose bank accounts hover perilously close to the zero balance level after paying for tuition and housing—may end up underachieving or even dropping out.

The Freedom Honor Society, which works to reverse the attrition of Pitt students through outreach and mentoring programs, decided to get involved, hoping to offer a financial remedy. The society created the Freedom Fund, an endowment to help pay for books and meals for the "economically disadvantaged students from historically underrepresented groups." After just one year, the student members raised the $10,000 necessary to establish the fund.

The idea first grew wings in 2002, when, between classes, a few Freedom members were kicking around retention ideas in the student union, recalls senior business major Sharaé Bryant, president of the group. When someone suggested providing money for books and food, the idea struck a nerve. Too many of them had seen too many of their classmates struggling financially.

This fund, says Bryant, is just another way that the organization tries to help Pitt students earn their degrees. To qualify, students must submit recommendations, write an essay, show financial need, and maintain a satisfactory GPA.

"We’re trying to lead students to freedom," says Bryant, "whether it’s academic freedom, financial freedom, or freedom from whatever they may feel is hindering their success as students."
—MR

Building Blocks

With the click of a mouse, a white-mesh screen glows across a three-dimensional gray sprinkler head displayed on the monitor. The sprinkler is now divided into tiny boxes, called finite elements. Next, the student types in data, hits enter, and finds out in a matter of seconds how the sprinkler head will stand up to real-world conditions like sun, rain, heat, cold. In the John A. Swanson Center for Product Innovation, Pitt engineering students can do this kind of virtual product testing, thanks to a $370,000-valued software gift from Pittsburgh-based Algor, a company that specializes in developing software with simulation capabilities.

As the vice president of finance at the University of Pennsylvania, Marna Cupp Whittington (FAS ’74, CAS ’70) saw students rack up significant debt on their way to graduation. To help ease that financial strain at Pitt, and enable women to pursue graduate degrees in underrepresented fields, she’s created the Whittington Fellowship. It will be awarded to female graduate students in Pitt’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Campaign Watch

Institutional Advancement is working hard to reach the goal of $1 billion, and Pitt’s alumni and friends are responding.

Total so far: $650 million!


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