Alumni Q&A: Infamous Madison Fire Shaped Angela Gibson's Career
On Sunday, April 20, 1998, the lives of seven people and their families were irrevocably changed when a mentally ill man boarded a Madison, Wisconsin, city bus, poured a can of gasoline on passengers and lit a match. This horrific event is etched in Madison’s collective memory.
Remarkably, all seven burn victims survived their injuries, largely due to the heroic efforts of nurses, physicians, surgeons and staff at the UW Health Burn Unit. Angela Gibson, RN, PhD ’07, MD ’09, is one of those heroes. She was just 22 years old and four months into her nursing career when she was thrust into one of the most demanding, exhausting, exhilarating and lifechanging events in her life.
She’s the eighth person whose life was forever changed. But her transformation—from burn nurse to surgeon and researcher—is one of re-invention and redemption. Gibson decided to pursue a combined MD/PhD degree at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health (SMPH). She now devotes her time to improving patients’ lives—in the very place where this journey began.
Why did you enter health care?
I’ve always been fascinated by how the human body works. That led me toward the burn field, because there is no greater physiological stress a body can go through.
Why choose burn/trauma, which can be so incredibly stressful?
Health care professionals either love working with burn patients or hate it. Those who love it do so because it requires many people from different disciplines to help burn patients recover. And you get to be there for patients and families during incredibly difficult times. Finally, it’s rewarding to realize how grateful patients are to be alive.
What do you recall about the night of April 20, 1998?
As I was arriving for my shift, the charge nurse told me we had seven major burn patients on their way. The unit had only seven beds then, and for the next 36 hours, it was chaos. We had every nurse who knew how to take care of burns come to our unit, and we were all trying to get the patients through that difficult, initial resuscitation phase.
What was that experience like so early in your career?
It was overwhelming and exhilarating. It also was ethically difficult because I had to take care of the man who poured the gasoline on the victims and started the fire. But seeing that many patients go through the major physiological change was the best education I could have received.
How did that experience change you?
I realized I wanted a high-intensity career. I like thinking on my feet, working long hours and having rewards in the end.
What kept this event from pushing you away from the burn environment?
You get to see amazing healing. Every time you take dressings down, you get to see the skin healing. The field is unique that way.
When did you decide to become a burn surgeon?
Following a very busy year after the bus fire, things slowed down, and I wanted to do more. As a nurse, I often got to watch surgeries and was fascinated by the way the OR is like a well-orchestrated play in which everyone knows their part. I also volunteered on campus with Dr. Lynn Allen-Hoffmann, who was developing a skin substitute, and I learned about the SMPH Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP), through which I could combine a clinical education with research and earn MD and PhD degrees.
Did you ever doubt your decision?
Many people told me I couldn’t do it because the training was so long and it would make it impossible to have a family. But I had a great job as a nurse, and I knew if medical school didn’t work out, I would still enjoy my job. Fortunately, I now am in the position I wanted all along.
How did your observations inspire you to become a surgeon?
Dr. Richard Helgerson—the main burn surgeon here at the time—was a master. I watched him inspect patients and figure out how he could find enough skin to cover their massive wounds. His amazing insight in treating burn victims played a huge role in my decision to become a burn surgeon.
Do you think about how this started?
I can’t believe that I am where I am. I can’t thank the people here enough, especially in the Department of Surgery. They knew I wanted to work as a UW Health surgeon, and everyone here supported me. I also couldn’t have made it through all my training without the support of my husband and family, who took care of everything else while I pursued my dream.
Did you have other advocates?
I had many. Dr. Deane Mosher, the director of the MSTP then, was the first to tell me he knew I could do it. Also, Dr. Mike Schurr, a burn and trauma surgeon, encouraged me.
How does your early experience as a nurse help you as a surgeon?
It’s been incredible to work at the different levels because I understand where everybody is coming from. I empathize with the challenges of caring for burn patients, and I truly appreciate the team effort. I am lucky to work closely with Cindy Schmitz, who was my nurse manager when I started as a nurse.
What is your main research focus?
I’m looking at optimizing how we care for burns so they can heal without skin grafts. I’m finding there is a lot more healthy tissue than our eyes can see. I think we can better identify healthy versus dead tissue and develop new therapeutics rather than create more wounds on patients’ bodies to harvest skin for grafts. I hope my research will one day allow patients to heal with less pain.
What’s it like being a researcher?
I love having the ability to look at a patient’s problem and think about it from a research standpoint then bring those ideas into the clinical realm, where they can help my patients. It’s the best of both worlds.
By Gian Galassi
This article appears in Quarterly magazine
Date Published: 12/16/2016