Feature Stories

Building relationships

For these doctors, their patients are the key

By Bonnie Blackburn
It’s all about the relationship for the five Best Doctors profiled in this issue of Fort Wayne Monthly. The relationship between doctor and patient, between doctor and staff, between doctor and doctor — all make or break a practice and are ones these doctors have made their priority.

Building those relationships, whether over the course of healing from an injury or a lifetime, is what these doctors appreciate most about their professions. And it’s what makes the practice of their craft worth getting up for.

Learn more about their lives, their practices and their relationships as we present Best Doctors in Fort Wayne.

 

 

Photography by Neal Bruns

Dr. Greg Sassmannshausen

A perfect match

You may not know his name, but if you’ve been to an athletic event in Fort Wayne, you’ve probably seen him. Dr. Greg Sassmannshausen is the team doctor for the Fort Wayne Komets and the Mad Ants, the University of Saint Francis and 14 area high schools. Oh, and he’s also a partner with Fort Wayne Orthopedics (FWO), where he practices as a sport medicine orthopedic surgeon.

The Fort Wayne native was quarterback for Concordia High School’s football team, where the team doctor, Chuck VanMeter, mentored him. “I basically wanted to do what he did,” Sassmannshausen said. “All I really knew was sports, so it made sense to stick with it. (Sports medicine) seemed like the perfect marriage.”

After high school, he attended the University of Indianapolis where he also played football and majored in biology before attending Indiana University’s school of medicine. He spent his residency in New England before returning to Fort Wayne and joining FWO in 2003.

As a sports physician, Sassmannshausen sees a lot of head injuries, and he said the recent media uproar about concussions in sports isn’t overblown.

“Concussion is a bad problem,” he said. “It’s serious. People are potentially killing themselves. That can be the end result. We’re concerned about identifying a head injury and then appropriately treating them. The young brain is more susceptible to severe injury than the older kids. We’ve really got to watch over them and make good decisions.

“I don’t want (serious injuries) to happen on my watch.”

Off the field, the majority of the issues he treats are due to overuse.

“The irony is we have these young adolescents trying to do young adult activities,” he said. “On both ends you see much of the same problems. Shoulder problems. Knee problems. It’s a societal issue. It’s a parenting issue.”

Sassmannshausen said the “American dream is 2.5 kids that are playing one sport and they play it all the time,” which contributes to overuse injuries to growing bones and tissues. “Too many parents are trying to be friends, not parents.”

Educating his patients on proper training techniques and how to cope with injuries is key to their successful rehabilitation. And he doesn’t just treat elite athletes. “An athlete is a pro ball player, an athlete is a mall walker. It’s an all-encompassing term,” he said.

Sassmannshausen said he owes his ability to relate well with his patients to his parents, Skip and Lynn Sassmannshausen, who were both teachers in Fort Wayne.

“My mom was the best teacher I ever had,” he said. “I teach when I see my patients. It’s hugely important they understand what’s wrong, what the treatments are, what the outcomes can be, so they can make an understanding choice. People research buying a car more than they do the guy who’s operating on them. I try to explain (the options) so they understand it.”

Sassmannshausen said he sees the doctor-patient relationship as crucial to making sure his patients can recuperate from their injuries.

“I’d consider it an absolute blessing when a patient considers you a friend when you’re finished with your interactions with them,” he said.

Family and friends are important to him. His brother, Jeff Sassmannshausen, is also a doctor, a dermatologist.

“My brother is a hero to me. I wanted to do what he did,” he said.

And what makes a great doctor?

“I think a (great doctor) is someone who is a regular guy, someone who views their patients as equals. A good doctor is not afraid to say, ‘I don’t know.’ I have a lot of partners here who are like that. These are wonderful people I’m surrounded by. I’m blessed to have that here. It’s an easy path to follow when you have leaders like them,” he said.

His other partner — his wife Jill — and their children, son Luke, 12, and daughter Hannah, 15, understand that he needs to spend the time he does with all of the teams he oversees, he said. 

“My wife, my kids, they lose a lot of time with me, but never once do they tell me they are disappointed,” he said. And when he takes off that white doctor’s coat or his blue surgical scrubs, he’s still an athlete, coaching his son’s football team, working out, riding horses or playing golf. His son sometimes tags along when Sassmannshausen is working the sidelines with teams.

“He likes to ‘help’ me,” Sassmannshausen said with a grin.

 

 

Photography by Neal Bruns

Dr. Michael Mirro

Knowledge by heart

A born researcher, Dr. Michael Mirro of Fort Wayne Cardiology has been involved in research that has saved countless lives. And while Fort Wayne may not be seen as a hotbed of medical research, Mirro and his team are turning that perception around, one study at a time.

“The first 10 years of my practice was focused on building a research effort at Parkview. We built the first community-based research facility outside of an academic setting,” he said. Indeed, the Parkview Research Center, which was recently renamed in Mirro’s honor, is where he has served as medical director for more than two decades. The Mirro Family Research and Education Center has helped countless patients because of its cutting-edge capabilities.

A native of Lowell, Ind., Mirro grew up in a family deeply engaged in the medical world, as his father was a primary care physician. Mirro attended Loyola University for his undergraduate studies before attending the Indiana University School of Medicine.

Mirro specialized in cardiac electrophysiology, the study of the electrical impulses that govern the beating of the heart, while at the University of Iowa following medical school. There, he established the cardiac electrophysiology program.

“When training in medical school, I was fascinated by the science behind cardiovascular disease,” he said. “Of all the specialties, (cardiology) seemed to be the most scientific. My passion is preventing sudden death … from heart rhythm problems.”

While at the University of Iowa, he was mentored by the chief of cardiology, and the two studied the effects of various drugs on the heart’s electrical systems. He brought that research interest to Fort Wayne when he and his wife, Jeanne, moved to the city in 1981. The family includes three grown children.

His research into various treatment methods that would correct heart rhythm problems continued, but Mirro also wanted to help grow the region’s economy and so he served for 10 years with the Greater Fort Wayne Chamber of Commerce and was one of the founders of the Northeast Indiana Innovation Center.

“(Doctors) are no different from anyone else. We’re small businesses. I became very engaged with the Chamber and the Innovation Center. It dovetails with my research interests because of the commercial aspects of medical devices,” he said, noting that attracting new medical-support industries brings new people to the community.

In recent years, Mirro has also worked on the national level, helping influence health care policy. He received stimulus funding for a program to develop medical informatics and said he’s supportive of some aspects of the president’s health care overhaul, but not all.

“The Affordable Care Act has some things that are good, some things that are not so good,” he said. “It was a shotgun approach with unintended consequences. (Health care policies) are driving doctors into large practices. A lot of care is delivered without reimbursements. The private payers are really the Machiavellian culprits in this. There’s less coverage, the premiums keep going up while the coverage goes down. Unreimbursed care keeps getting shifted. It is certainly a very complicated matrix to try to fix all this. We need targeted solutions.”

Research continues to drive Mirro, he said.

“Knowing that certain types of therapies can be improved” compels Mirro’s research, he said. “We look at the standard of treatment now. We measure outcomes. It’s very common that your preconceived notions are proved invalid. You find out either (that) it didn’t make a difference (or) is in fact harmful. It validates the importance of biomedical research.”

And outcomes are improving, he said. “Mortality has gone down. We know we’re on the right track,” he said, citing the development of statin drugs to control cholesterol that have reduced heart attack deaths. Mirro was part of the clinical research team that was involved in trials of statins. And he cited improvements in imaging technology that helps doctors make more precise diagnoses.

“We have all these tools that can be embedded. That data within the system helps with the decision-making process at the point of care,” he said.

He’s also a member of the national Heart Rhythm Society and worked on health informatics, which are tools to enhance patient engagement with doctors and their individual treatment plans.

“We study the comparative effectiveness of (each system) to see if it does make a difference in patient outcomes,” he said. “We have to constantly be questioning therapies. Are the new treatments better? We look at opportunities to improve care. It makes you question your current treatment strategies. (Research) raises the level of care. Everyone around you is engaged.”

Mirro is part of a team that’s studying new pacemakers and implantable defibrillators and has been involved in the approval process overseen by the Food And Drug Administration.

And he continues to practice medicine, seeing patients and working to improve their chances of regaining a high quality of life.

“I’ve been fortunate that I’m part of a very forward-thinking cardiology practice. I spend more time in direct patient care. I like patient care. I come to work everyday, and it’s exciting. I’d come everyday even if I didn’t get paid.

“Northeast Indiana has an outstanding medical community,” he said, citing the strong family practice residency program that’s drawn many new physicians to the region. And he described the new Parkview Regional Medical Center as “very exciting” and one that will “attract top-notch talent” to the area.

“My wife and I aren’t from Fort Wayne, but we really found the community ideal to raise our children,” he said. “As my practice was growing, I felt a responsibility to ensure the community continued to grow. … My wife is very involved in the arts, and arts and economic development are connected. (You’ll find) a strong arts community underpinning in places with strong jobs possibilities. The two things are connected.”


Photography by Neal Bruns

Dr. Herbert J. Acker

Decades of care

Dr. Herbert J. Acker has been practicing medicine since the days before Medicare and Medicaid made it possible for many people to get the medical care they desperately needed. Indeed, he started practicing in 1965, at a time when people often bartered items for medical treatment.

“Strangest thing I ever got? A neck bone,” he recalled. “I thought it was kind of strange, but my wife made it into a wonderful soup.”

Then Medicare came in and “a lot of older folks were able to come in and get treated,” he said. And 47 years later, Acker continues to focus on the elderly, providing geriatric care at hospitals and nursing homes while continuing to see about 20 patients a day at his practice at Brooklyn Medical Associates.

The field of geriatric care “is improving,” Acker said. “People are living longer and more comfortable lives.”

The Fort Wayne native attended North Side High School and went to pharmacy school at Purdue University. He worked as a pharmacist for Lutheran Hospital for several years, but after being drafted into the Navy, where he served as a corpsman, he decided to attend Indiana University’s medical school and become a doctor. One thing he kept from his pharmacy days is the shorter blue coat he wears while seeing patients.

"I’ve never worn the white coat,” he said. “The white coat always seemed stiff to me.”

He initially chose family medicine as his specialty, and he’s been in practice long enough to be working on his fourth generation of family members, he said.

“They’re more friends than patients,” he said. “They’ve been kind enough to stick with me over the years. It’s absolutely great and so nice to see the evolution of people’s families.”

He has seen a lot of changes in medicine over the past four decades and credits preventive care with making huge improvements in people’s health.

He also has been thrilled with the major increases in the use of electronic devices such as MRIs and CT scans that have come about in the past several decades to diagnose and treat illnesses.

“The ability to make diagnoses with the electronics — we weren’t able to do (that) before,” he said. “And the medications we have now” have helped extend his patients’ lives.

Acker cited “unbelievable” advances in cardiovascular care, particularly the development of stain drugs to treat high cholesterol, and improvements in diabetes care as helping patients live healthier and longer lives. Smoking cessation programs are also of tremendous benefit for his patients, he said.

Though he trained as a family medicine physician, he became interested in geriatrics as his patients aged.

“I saw a need for (doctors) with special interest in older folks,” he said. “So I got certified in geriatrics. A lot of folks have chronic illnesses, lung diseases and cardiovascular problems.”

Acker’s old school enough to make house calls at area nursing homes, regularly checking in with longtime patients who often don’t get many other visitors. He said they need people to interact with and he’s happy to give them a chance to talk about their ailments and their lives. Oftentimes, that’s all they really need, he noted, a friendly face and someone with talk with.

His visits are “usually very well received,” he said “I try to engage them. It’s as important as reviewing their medication.”

He’s also seen major changes in how he gets reimbursed for his care. Back when he started, there was no Medicare or Medicaid, and private insurance was in its infancy. Hence, the neck bone.

“Insurance and Medicare have helped a lot more people live healthier lives,” he said.

At 78 years old, Acker’s certainly earned his retirement. But he has no plans to leave. A partner passed away from a heart attack in the office several years ago, and such an ending would be fine with him.

“I’d consider that the ideal retirement,” he said with a smile.

 

Photography by Neal Bruns

 Dr. Barbara Schroeder

Seeing the big picture

Dr. Barbara Schroeder treats that most delicate organ, the eye, helping restore the gift of sight in people suffering from cataracts and glaucoma and other eye diseases and injuries. As an ophthalmologist and eye surgeon, Schroeder deals in precision, carefully cutting away diseased tissues and placing lenses to help her patients see the world more clearly.

She grew up in Martinsville but came to Fort Wayne to open her practice because her husband, Walt, is from New Haven. She was the daughter of a nurse and a pharmacist who served as drug rep for Eli Lilly. But it was a summer job working in a medical office for a doctor whose children she babysat that ignited the passion to become a surgeon.

“He did a lot of general surgery, and they let me watch him,” she recalled. In medical school, she studied various types of surgery and fell in love with ophthalmology, in part because those she studied under seemed to love it.

“I wanted something that was family friendly,” she said, noting that her oldest child was born the day before she graduated from medical school — on Mother’s Day, in fact. She and her husband have three children now: Annie, Rich and Phil.

Schroeder spent four years of her residency and internship as a corneal specialist in Morgantown, W. Va., before returning to Indiana in 1991. She was hired by Dr. Alfred Wick, who was her husband’s ophthalmologist. He retired in 1996 and she took over the practice, which she shares with Dr. Natalka Fedoriw.

As an ophthalmologist, Schroeder treats “a little of everything,” she said.

“It’s also in a way primary care,” she said. “You have long-term care with your patients and you have satisfaction of seeing them over the years. Patients can’t trust you if they feel you don’t know them. The baseline of being a good doctor is you just like people. If you don’t, you can still be a good doctor, but you miss that relationship.”

Learning about her patients is critical so that Schroeder can develop a treatment plan that will address their goals.

“You need to know what kind of things they do, whether that’s golf, crafts, driving or using machinery,” she said. That knowledge guides how she addresses the vision problem.

Schroeder would much rather be in the operating room or seeing patients than running the business side of her practice, as she said the business side “does not come naturally” to her. She recognizes the importance of it, however.

“It’s also about leading your office where you want it to go,” she said. And the increase in patients has not been matched by the reimbursements for care.

“To me, it’s such a huge problem that we have so many uninsured who put off care,” she said. “They don’t think an eye problem is a medical problem, and it ends up being a (major) problem.”

She estimated that about 60 percent of her patients receive Medicare benefits. And as Baby Boomers age and develop eye problems, she sees her practice changing.

“There’s definitely a widening of that 60 to 70 (year old) age group,” she said. “They’re more savvy about their health care, and that’s a really good thing. They are more likely to ask questions and be engaged with their treatment.”

Much of the surgery she performs involves cataracts, a clouding of the lens that helps the eye see. She will remove the diseased lens and implant a plastic lens that will restore vision. She said new implants are being developed that feature a bifocal ability, meaning a patient would not need to use reading glasses once the surgery is complete.

“The best is when you have a really challenging patients that you figure out,” she said. “Those challenges don’t come up every day.”

And Schroeder is passing her love for medicine on to her children, two of whom are currently in medical school. Her relationships with her patients and staff are what keep her interested and motivated.

“It’s great when you have people who are really grateful,” she noted. “The other thing that makes a great day is the whole teamwork of the office. Being a part of a team is great. Everyone has a role to play and when you feel that’s all in sync, that’s a great day.”

 

 

Photography by Neal Bruns

Dr. Dale Sloan

The benefits of bariatrics

With obesity rates at an all-time high, Dr. Dale Sloan is not short of patients. A bariatric surgeon with Indiana Surgical Specialists, Sloan has performed more than 800 gastric bypass surgeries since beginning to offer the procedure in 2005.

“There was a need in Fort Wayne” for a bariatric surgeon, he said. “We tried to recruit a bariatric surgeon but were unsuccessful. I wanted a new challenge,” so he learned three forms of the surgery, which works to help patients lose weight by reducing the size of the stomach and sometimes the small intestine.

Sloan started out as a general surgeon.

“My mom always talked about me being a doctor,” he said. “I didn’t have anything better to do,” he joked, so the LaOtto native majored in biology at Indiana Wesleyan University before graduating from Indiana University’s school of medicine.

“I was always making things,” he said of his younger self. “Surgery was a natural, because it combined medicine and things I could create. (At the time) there was no separate bariatric surgical specialty,” in medical school, he said. “You need the general surgery residency. You do a lot of the same things.”

He spent a number of years as a general surgeon before branching into bariatrics and opening Key Bariatrics Specialists, a subgroup within Indiana Surgical Specialists. He works closely with Lutheran Health’s Bariatrics Center. (As an aside, Sloan also provides surgeries and medical treatment on medical mission trips to the Dominican Republic each year and loves planting trees.)

Sloan offers life-changing surgeries that weren’t readily available two decades ago. Despite initial resistance, insurance companies have started to pay for gastric bypass surgeries, opening up the procedures to many more patients, he said. Still, many companies refuse to cover the procedure, which Sloan sees as discrimination against people who are obese. A person is considered obese if their body mass index, a measure of body fat based on height and weight, is over 40.

“We see patients with all kinds of medical problems, including those needing heart transplants, who are on dialysis or oxygen,” Sloan said. “Every (medical problem) they have is made worse by severe obesity.”

Patients seeking bariatric surgery must first go through a seminar that explains the procedure, its risks and benefits. After approval from insurance, the patients then go through a four-week program that includes education, medical evaluation and a diet that replaces missing nutrients and helps patients lose pounds prior to surgery.

“If there’s a (health) issue, we might have to alter this” plan, Sloan said. He said this period is when he builds a relationship with his patients, one that continues long after the surgery is completed. Patients check in yearly once they’ve “graduated” and reached their goal weight, he said.

“It’s so much fun to hear these stories about things people can do they weren’t able to do” prior to the surgery, he said. On average, patients lose two-thirds of their excess body weight, Sloan said. For example, a person who is 100 pounds over normal weight can lose 65 pounds with bariatric surgery.

“That’s one thing that got me excited about bariatric surgery,” he said. “If I can do a surgery that helps someone lose 150 pounds, that can profoundly change a person’s life. It would make anybody feel good to help people like that. I get a great deal of personal satisfaction.”

Since the development of the first bariatric surgical techniques in the 1980s, Sloan said there have been remarkable advances in both the style of the surgery and in the equipment used.

“Everything is done with laparoscopy,” meaning it’s done though small incisions in the abdomen, instead of in an “open” procedure, where there’s significant scarring. “Suturing is (initially) more difficult (with laparoscopy) but once you get used to it, it’s easy,” he said.

And the procedures continue to improve. Sloan performs three types of gastric bypass surgery: the Roux en Y, the sleeve gastrectomy and the lap band procedure. The surgical procedures vary the size of the stomach and the small intestine to both reduce the amount of food a person can eat (which makes them feel full on much smaller amounts of food) and the way the body is able to use that food. He said studies are being done to improve the techniques so that they are even less invasive, such as ones done via endoscopy using a special scope that runs down the throat.

“My hope is that (patients) can feel better about themselves, that they feel more confident,” he said. “Just enjoying life is a positive. (Weight loss) offers significant health benefits. People tend to live longer.”

Posted: Thu, 08/30/2012 - 1:20 pm
Last updated: Fri, 11/02/2012 - 2:12 pm