By Damaris Christensen
Charting Her Course
With exacting precision, Heidi Nelson strives to make the world better
By Damaris Christensen
Photographs by Nate Howard
Walking into the Gonda building—the centerpiece of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.—is like walking into a public art gallery that also happens to be one of the best medical facilities in the world. Above one of the main entrances, thousands of tiny blown-glass objects hang in clumps of greens, golds and blues in a Dale Chihuly work created especially for Mayo. The occasional person in a wheelchair buzzes by mural-covered walls. On the other side of the building, a three-story curving glass wall lets the crisp autumn sunlight inside, while highlighting banks of chrysanthemums and daisies outside. It is a place where the deep needs of illness do not overpower the call to enjoy life.
“The environment is very inspiring and sometimes that is so necessary in our business,” says Heidi Nelson, 54, a surgeon and academic researcher at Mayo who specializes in treating patients with colon or rectal cancer. The art is one of many indicators of the hospital’s mission of holistic, patient-centered care, she says. Every person who works there knows that they are part of a collaborative team, Nelson says, in which the patient comes first, not the practitioner or the department. And that is part of what drew her there.
At the same time, the Mayo Clinic has been a place for Nelson to test her wings. Nelson, who grew up with her brothers and cousins on the West Coast, migrated to the Midwest after completing medical school and her residency. Drawn to cancer because of the complex problems it posed, Nelson arrived at Mayo in 1987 on a fellowship that focused on colon and rectal cancer surgery. She became the first female surgeon on staff when she was hired in 1990 and, in 1996, was the first woman to chair the surgical division. She also became the head of a research lab focused on cancer immunology.
From the time she first set foot in the operating room, Nelson says, she found surgery “captivating.” Medicine in general and surgery in particular matched her lifelong desire to do things that were hands-on, making ideas tangible. “It became clear to me that this was a fit, a perfect fit,” she says, speaking with controlled passion. “I’d found my calling. I’d found what was natural to me and I fell in love with the profession.”
Just three years after she was hired at Mayo, Nelson received a federal grant to study a new, less-invasive surgical technique for treating colon cancer. In the early 1990s, she explains, it seemed like the field of gallbladder surgery had been turned on its head by the technique, called laparoscopy, which required only very small incisions. Surgeons were beginning to look at using laparoscopy for colon cancer, but some early reports led doctors to fear that operating in such a small space might accidentally spread cancer cells throughout the abdomen or to the incisions.