Link: University of Iowa

Information About

Alumni Interview

Portrait: Karen Brasel, M.D.

Karen Brasel


What is your hometown?

I consider Cedar Falls, Iowa my hometown, as that is where I spent most of elementary, junior high, and high school, graduating from Northern University High School in 1983. However, I was born in Monmouth, Illinois.

What is your official title?

Professor of Surgery and Health Policy

How/when did you become interested in science and medicine?

Jim Kelly, my high school biology teacher, taught an advanced biology class that was truly outstanding. He was so enthusiastic about discovery and science—our team won the Biology Olympics at Wartburg College (complete with charades), we took a field trip to The University of Iowa, and one of our graduates took us on a tour of the medical school, just to name a few memorable class moments. It seemed a fitting way to merge my interests in science and in serving people.

What interested you to pursue a career in medicine and medical education?

If I weren’t a physician I would be a math teacher. The only semester in college that I didn’t take science I took two or three math courses, and considered a career switch, until the next semester when I straightened back out. I have been so positively influenced by so many teachers and role models that teaching is one of the ways I feel I can give back. It also keeps me on my toes, as you have to know something really well to be able to teach it!

Please highlight your major career achievements, awards, discoveries, etc.

I am Chair of the Advanced Trauma Life Support Committee–and a member of the Executive Committee. I am also part of the American College of Surgeons Committee on Trauma and the Research Core Co–director at the Medical College of Wisconsin Injury Research Center. Additionally, I am on the American College of Surgeons Palliative Care Task Force. I have won the Association of Surgical Education Outstanding Teaching Award and I was given the Peter Canizaro Award for Outstanding Research by the American Association for the Surgery of Trauma.

Is there a teacher, mentor or UI Carver College of Medicine faculty member who has helped shape your education?

Drs. Kim Ephgrave and Peter Densen. Kim was my inspiration to pursue a career in surgery. I remember the first operation I ever saw, a hernia at the VA hospital. She also introduced me to the world of surgical research. Although I’m a long way from strain gauges and rat stomachs now, it was a very valuable experience that cemented my desire to go into academic medicine. The best part is that we are still connected. We attend many of the same meetings - and we have had the chance to have several conversations over the years that I value immensely.

Peter Densen was a magical teacher. Not a very descriptive statement, but my two months on Infectious Disease remain etched in my brain in large part because of his humanity and his teaching ability. I learned so much during a fourth year elective on Infectious Disease I signed up for a second month since he was attending, and later did a two year surgical Infectious Disease "fellowship"- I remember his masterful clinical exam skills sitting at a patient’s bedside, and I also remember a shared love of Pat Conroy’s storytelling…I still have a book he gave me on my shelf.

How or why did you choose The University of Iowa for your education and medical training?

It is a great school, in–state tuition was nice, and there was no reason to go anywhere else.

What kind of professional opportunities or advantages has your University of Iowa medical training provided?

I was able to attend medical school with my best friend, prepare for an outstanding residency, and have ongoing connections with mentors and friends–including new ones with Hawkeye history that I continue to meet.

Please describe your professional interests.

I am interested in surgical education, mentorship, care of the trauma patient, functional outcome, quality of life after traumatic injury and cost–effectiveness analyses.

What are some of your outside interests?

I enjoy cooking, reading, playing the piano, rollerblading, spending time with family and traveling.

Do you have an insight or philosophy that guides you in your professional work?

Keep the focus on the patient and the learner.

If you could change one thing about the health care system in the United States, what would it be?

I would like to see access to good quality health care for all, regardless of race or economic status.

What is the biggest change you've experienced in medicine since you were a student?

Restrictions–hours, government oversight, insurance oversight, rules put in place by quality organizations often without concrete evidence of benefit.

What one piece of advice would you give to today's medical students?

Keep your patients’ well–being central to the decisions you make at work; keep your well-being central to the decisions you make outside of work, and keep a balance between the two.

What do you see as "the future" of the medicine?

I wish I knew. I hope—less disparity, increased access to care, improved quality with less cost, more patient focus. I fear–increased regulation, increased burnout, increased fear of litigation and decreased job satisfaction.


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