State News

Pediatric surgeons: A rare breed

Posted 12:01 a.m. Sunday

— Ethan Stone is an adorable 2-year-old boy with an explosion of brown, curly hair.

That his body was covered by tubes and wires helping him breathe did nothing to diminish his enthusiastic play with a mobile above his hospital bed at New Hanover Regional Medical Center.

His mother, Jeri, calls him a typical 2-year-old, despite his heart having stopped nine times so far in his young life.

Treating him at NHRMC is pediatric surgeon Dr. Tim Weiner, who along with Dr. Jeff Dehmer was hired within the last few months to provide NHRMC with 24-hour pediatric surgical services for the first time.

That doesn't sound impressive until you realize that their field is highly specialized — there are only about 400 pediatric surgeons actively practicing nationwide. To put that in perspective, there are four times more people playing professional football in the NFL.

"It's a small community," Weiner said of pediatric surgeons.

Becoming a pediatric surgeon is no small feat. It is among the most difficult career paths to pursue in medicine — taking a total of 13 years of medical school, residency and fellowships to become licensed as a pediatric surgeon.

So having two of them at the hospital means Southeastern North Carolina's families don't have to travel far for a kid to have his appendix removed or to be treated in cases of emergency.

"It prevents families from having to go to (East Carolina University), Duke or Chapel Hill to have routine surgeries done," Dehmer said.

Approaches to the job

Both doctors said they make a good team, even if they have different approaches to the job and backgrounds. Weiner said he knew he wanted to be a pediatric surgeon all along, while Dehmer said the practice "wasn't my first love in medical school" — he originally wanted to be a heart surgeon.

Dehmer has children, which he said makes him empathetic to parents going through the worst moments of their lives, though he said he can't let empathy overwhelm his ability to effectively operate on children as young as one-minute old.

"My perspective on that changed when I had my own kids, that's for sure," Dehmer said. "There's a fine line between the art and science of medicine. I want to empathize with patients, but at the same time too much emotion ... does not leave you well-equipped to do your job."

Weiner said he has no children, "so maybe that helps me" keep a therapeutic distance so he can focus on the task at hand.

Weiner, who served with the military in Afghanistan as a pediatric surgeon, said the question of empathy is something he thought a lot about, especially after his experience overseas.

"You have to be able to compartmentalize," Weiner said. "You can't experience that pain with them."

Nothing routine

Dehmer and Weiner said they approach each surgery keeping in mind that no surgery is routine for the person going under the knife or his or her family.

"Being nervous is good. It helps keep you on your toes," Dehmer said. "The day it becomes routine to operate on someone's child is the day I should retire."

Weiner said the simpler surgeries actually carry more pressure for him, because those are the procedures where parents expect everything to go smoothly.

"A good day is just coming in and doing your job, knowing you've operated on a baby who will go on to live a healthy life for 70 or 80 years," Weiner said.

Dehmer said the job can have difficult days — he said he had one patient during his internship die of a ruptured appendix, for example — but the job requires him to be able to make snap decisions.

"Medicine is not what you read in a textbook," Dehmer said. "It's judgment and making tough decisions on the fly. That's what makes it fun, but makes it stressful too."

'A blessing'

Judge Fred Gore of Whiteville gives perhaps the most stark example of why having the surgeons in Wilmington can ease a family's stress. His twin 8-year-old sons, Jeremiah and Josiah, are sickle cell patients who have been treated by Weiner, including gall bladder surgeries in April for Jeremiah and in August for Josiah.

Having your child go through surgery is already heart-wrenching.

"You want to take the pain or whatever is going on with your child on yourself," Gore said.

Jeremiah's surgery was performed in Chapel Hill before Weiner was recruited to NHRMC. Josiah's was in Wilmington.

Jeremiah's surgery meant Gore stayed in Chapel Hill, away from work and from the rest of his family. But because Gore has family members in Wilmington and lives closer to Wilmington, much of that added stress was alleviated when it was Josiah's turn to have his gall bladder removed, Gore said.

"It allows you to have a little more peace of mind," he said. "It reduces the anxiety because you have your support system closer. Having that happen closer to home is a Godsend."

He said the region stands to benefit from the doctors' presence at NHRMC because it will mean families can at least be unburdened from the financial stress of longer travel.

"It's just a blessing for the entire region," he said. "It's something we should all work together to hold on to."

A big kid

Dehmer said one of the best parts of the job is seeing a kid heal.

"I really just love interacting with the kids," Dehmer said. "They want to play, want to eat and just don't want to be in the hospital anymore."

As he showed off a playroom set up at the Betty Cameron Women's and Children's Hospital, Dehmer said he often will try to play with healing children.

"It's a perfect blend of the technical challenges of operating on children with the fun of getting to be goofy with your patients that you don't get to do with adults," Dehmer said.

Part of something new

While walking through the pediatric ward, Weiner checked in on a couple of patients and their parents. Each said having him in Wilmington makes it easier to care for their children.

"It makes my life easier," Jeri Stone said. "I don't have to travel back and forth to Chapel Hill. It's very important for us to have that sense of assurance right here."

Dehmer said he hopes the new model will mean better outcomes for families in the region.

"Hopefully, I can retire, look back and be proud of being part of a new phase of caring for children in Wilmington and Southeastern North Carolina," Dehmer said.

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