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Life on the cutting edge

Dr. Michael Yaszemski

It's hard to look at Dr. Michael Yaszemski's CV and not think of superlatives: Gifted surgeon. Groundbreaking researcher. Renaissance man. Lifesaver. Miracle worker. Hero.

His family, friends, co-workers, and patients might apply any number of these terms to him. But you'll never hear Yaszemski agreeing with them. At most, he might admit to being one thing--lucky.

"I've been very fortunate to have the opportunities I've had," he says.

Those opportunities began as a chemical engineering student at Lehigh, then went on to include earning an M.D. at Georgetown, a surgical fellowship at Harvard, a doctorate in chemistry at MIT, and, most recently, an appointment as the chair of spine surgery and directorship of his own biomedical engineering lab at the world-renowned Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

"I've been mentored by truly gifted teachers and been part of some talented teams that have done good work over the years. I'm very grateful for that," he says.

And the thing is, he really means it. Yaszemski is a genuine rarity. In a field stereotypically dominated by ego, Yaszemski is not merely humble and modest, but generous too, quick to compliment colleagues and to give credit to his research and surgical teams. He shuns the spotlight, preferring instead to focus on the job at hand. That's a trait he's exhibited no matter what team he's been on.

It was certainly true 30 years ago, when young Mike Yaszemski joined the Lehigh Mountain Hawks football team, serving as offensive tackle for the rest of his academic career. In his senior season, the team awarded him an Unsung Hero trophy, honoring both his contributions to the team and the unassuming way he went about making those contributions.

"Mike kept a low profile, but he was incredibly dedicated to the team," says Joe Sterrett, Lehigh's Murray H. Goodman Dean of Athletics, and Yaszemski's quarterback. "We all respected him because of how hard he worked, the level of commitment he showed to the team. And it wasn't just the players--his coaches saw it, too."

In fact, it was coach John Whitehead, one of the winningest coaches in Lehigh history (75-38-2), who saw a potential in Yaszemski that extended far beyond the line of scrimmage.

"I was all set to graduate and start my career as a chemical engineer. I had a job with Exxon already lined up. But then Coach Whitehead called and offered me an NCAA postgraduate scholarship," Yaszemski recalls.

One of just 33 recipients across all three divisions of college athletics, the money allowed Yaszemski to stay at Lehigh for another year, earning his master's in chemical engineering. The scholarship did more than that, though: It introduced Yaszemski to an area of science that would change his life--and the lives of countless soldiers and civilians who would come to benefit from his work.

It was during his graduate studies that Yaszemski first came to appreciate the link between chemical engineering and medicine. For his thesis, Yaszemski began working with polymers, which are molecules strung in repeating structural units or chains. There are plenty of natural polymers in the world--in fact, human DNA is a polymer. Proteins are polymers, too--chains of amino acids. Yaszemski's graduate work involved working with synthetic polymers--plastics--to create materials useful as immunologic reagents, polymers that could help diagnose various conditions or problems in the human body.

"It was an incredibly positive experience," he says. "I was really welcomed with open arms back into the department, and I got to work with some amazing teachers."

Among those teachers back in 1978 was one of his thesis advisers, a new professor in the department: Mohamed S. El-Aasser, now vice president for international affairs and former provost and vice president for academic affairs. In his 37 years at Lehigh, El-Aasser has taught and advised more than 100 graduate students, but he still remembers one of his first as one of his best.

"Right away, there was a quality about Mike that made him special," El-Aasser says. "He was very caring, soft-spoken, articulate. He took pride in the work. You could see that. His capabilities were very clear, even back then. I knew he would make an outstanding researcher. And now he's an outstanding doctor, a superb engineer and researcher truly at the pinnacle of his profession."

When Yaszemski completed his master's degree a year later, his work on the medical and diagnostic aspects of polymers kindled an interest in medicine. He applied to medical school and was accepted by Georgetown University. The only question in his mind was figuring out how to pay for it.

Yaszemski came from a modest, middle-class family where both parents worked--his father as a police officer, his mother as a secretary. With a younger brother recently enrolled at Lehigh, Yaszemski knew that if he was going to earn an M.D., he'd have to find the funding on his own.

Unleashing the regenerative potential of polymers

As it turned out, he did get some family help when an uncle, a career Air Force officer, told him about the Health Professions Scholarship Program. The program would cover medical school in exchange for four years of military service. In 1979, Yaszemski was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Air Force Reserve. Four years later, he graduated from Georgetown, but he didn't stop there. By the end of the decade, Dr. Yaszemski was wrapping up his residency in orthopedic surgery. In 1991, he completed a fellowship in spinal surgery at Harvard Medical School.

Any one of these accomplishments would be enough for most men, but Yaszemski's early science and engineering background propelled him onward.

"By now I was on staff as an orthopedic surgeon at Wilford Hall Medical Center at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, when my boss called me into his office," Yaszemski recalls. "He was a man who saw the value of research, so he had lobbied--and received permission--to train one of his surgeons as a scientist. He checked my records, saw that I was an engineer, and asked me how I felt about getting my Ph.D. It was my work at Lehigh that really put that opportunity in my hands."

Yaszemski went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he worked with Dr. Robert Langer, one of the world's foremost experts in biotechnology, particularly in the areas of tissue engineering and drug-delivery systems. Almost immediately after completing his studies there, Yaszemski got a call from the Mayo Clinic.

"I wasn't surprised when that happened," Langer says. "Mayo is renowned for the way it merges clinical research with patient care. Mike was the same way. He was--and still is--incredibly dedicated to his patients, and to helping them with the research he's done."

Yaszemski continued his work with polymers and biomaterials, using them to enhance drug delivery in patients, particularly those undergoing chemotherapy. He also began using polymers to rebuild or replace bone, cartilage, and nerve tissue.

"We were particularly focused on this kind of regenerative treatment because we saw the enormous potential polymers could have on warwounded," he says.

Yaszemski got firsthand experience working with war-wounded when he went on active duty and learned that his medical group would be going to Iraq.

M.A.S.H. on steroids

In 2006, after years of working at Air Force bases stateside, Yaszemski, by then a colonel, served as deputy commander of the 332nd Medical Group at the massive Balad Air Base, just 68 miles north of Baghdad. Since the Air Force shares the facility with the Army, the base name was eventually changed to "Joint Base Balad."

Army personnel gave it a more colorful nickname: "Mortaritaville," since the base was such a large and tempting target for local insurgents.

With characteristic modesty, Col. Yaszemski downplayed the threat during his six-month tour of Balad. Instead, he praised the medical staff, some of whom had a nickname of their own for the facility, calling it "M.A.S.H. on steroids." And with good reason: In his first month at the base, Yaszemski, along with other surgeons, performed more than 1,200 procedures on a wide variety of patients, including military personnel, wounded Iraqi civilians, and even insurgents and detainees.

"They certainly kept us busy, but the level of care our staff was able to provide was extraordinary," he says.

In fact, statistics later showed that an unparalleled 96 percent of patients treated by Yaszemski's medical group survived to the next level of care (which usually meant being shipped stateside or to a European medical base). That survival rate was--and still is--the best in the entire history of military medicine.

Back home, Yaszemski maintained his personal commitment to excellence. In early 2008, he was promoted to brigadier general in the Air Force Reserves, about as high as one can go in that chain of command.

On the civilian side, Mayo's orthopedics department is ranked as the top program in the United States, and Yaszemski's research work as director of the clinic's polymeric biomaterials and tissue engineering lab is the very definition of "cutting edge." Currently, he is Mayo's principal investigator participating in a new consortium--the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine (AFIRM)- dedicated to developing new techniques for treating American servicemen and women injured in war, techniques that could also benefit the civilian populace one day. Yaszemski's focus will be on bone and nerve regeneration.

"Once again, we're seeing what polymers, plastics, can do in terms of treating nerve damage, reconnecting split nerves in a way that wasn't possible before," he says.

Doing the impossible seems to be second nature for him. In early 2009, Yaszemski and his surgical team made headlines when they treated a patient--a young Canadian mother named Janis Ollson--who was diagnosed with a rare form of pelvic cancer. Doctors told her they'd have to remove most of her pelvis, and her entire left leg. Furthermore, the procedure might damage the nerves in her right leg enough that she'd never walk again.

Yaszemski had a different idea. Thanks to his expertise in biomedical engineering, he was able to not only remove the tumor but to reconstruct Ollson's pelvis, a first in medical history. Over the course of two operations, Yaszemski and his team rebuilt the woman's pelvis, saved her right leg, and created a foundation that will one day allow Ollson to wear a prosthetic on her left leg. As of this writing, Ollson is transitioning from a wheelchair--which doctors told her she'd be confined to for the rest of her life--to walking with the help of crutches.

But even when confronted with what by any measure is a breakthrough in reconstructive surgery, Yaszemski won't take the credit.

"Mayo is the epitome of teamwork, and that surgery wouldn't have been possible without a team effort, to say nothing of the incredible courage of our patient," he says.

"That is Mike to the core," says El-Aasser. "No matter what great thing he does--and he has done very many great things as an engineer and as a doctor--his first impulse is for the people he's helping, or the team who helps him. I truly wish there were more doctors, more scientists, like him."

Another team effort

El-Aasser is now involved with an effort that may one day grant that very wish. Recently, the former chemical engineering professor and the graduate student he once mentored began discussing the formation of a strategic alliance between Lehigh University and the Mayo Clinic.

"The idea is to have a kind of exchange program between Lehigh and Mayo," Yaszemski says. "Mayo would benefit from Lehigh's engineering strengths, while Lehigh could take advantage of Mayo's strength in clinical medicine. So we would see Mayo students going to Lehigh to complete key aspects of engineering work, while engineering majors--students like I was back in 1978--would come to Mayo."

El-Aasser is optimistic that the program will launch in the near future. "It would be wonderful to have a new generation of engineers learning more about medicine, and vice versa," he says. Later phases of the partnership might include professors from both schools changing places just as their students do.

It's an idea that intrigues one of the university's most accomplished alums. "It's going to be a fantastic program. Truly groundbreaking in what it will offer new engineers and doctors," Yaszemski says. "Personally, I'd love to be one of the teachers involved. It would be wonderful to complete that circle. I'd love it. I'd love to come back to Lehigh."

Fantastic. Groundbreaking. Wonderful. It's rare to hear such superlatives from Yaszemski's mouth, but as usual, they are terms he applies to others. If he does indeed return to the Lehigh campus, it's clear that Yaszemski prefers to come back the same way he left: as an unsung hero.

But as far as his colleagues are concerned, they see only the hero.

Story by --Stephen C. George

Posted on Thursday, January 28, 2010

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