Link: University of Iowa

Information About

Alumni Interview

Nancy Heerens-Knudson

Portrait: Nancy Heerens-Knudson


What is your hometown?

Rockford, Illinois

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

My father is a retired family physician and my mom was a nurse. My dad drew diagrams of things he had seen at work at the dinner table. It was fascinating. I married a physician (Ralph Knudson’72) and eventually I succumbed to my roots.

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

I initially was a theatre major and then was a mental health counselor for 15 years. Medicine though, was in my blood and I finally jumped in.

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

Ironically, I am best known for my one woman play BUSTED which I wrote in 2001 about my experiences surviving breast cancer. I have performed it about 30 times in many places and have performed it for the last four years for the freshman medical students in the Human Dimensions in Medicine course at the University of Iowa.

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

As a returning undergraduate student, Alice Fulton’s biochemistry course knocked my socks off. Also Earl Rose’s medical ethics course and many of the faculty teaching the Physician Assistant students were fabulous. My most incredible mentor remains Susan Goodner with whom I had a Family Practice rotation. She still is the best physician I have ever seen.

How or why did you choose the UI for your education and medical training?

I was looking for opportunities to get into medicine somehow and we were living in Decorah, Iowa. My husband Ralph was offered a position in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Iowa and that provided the opportunity I needed to go back to school.

What kind of professional opportunities or advantages has your UI medical training provide?

The PA program has been one of the top programs in the country for many years. Being a graduate from such a prestigious program has opened many professional doors to me, especially in creating jobs where there previously hadn’t been PA‘s.

Please describe your professional interests?

I enjoy “cradle to the grave” family medicine. I especially like OB, pediatrics and women’s medicine. I enjoy taking care of families. I am committed to lobbying for health and dental care for the underserved which often means health and dental care for kids. I enjoy mentoring PA students also.

What are some of your outside interests?

Playwriting, watercolor painting, riding my Harley along with my husband Ralph and exploring new places. Travel generally.

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

Patients open themselves to health providers in so many ways. They allow us to see areas of their bodies and souls that are incredibly personal and private. This is a great privilege and it is our responsibility to give the best and most respectful care we can give to our patients .We are their advocates. It is our moral charge to advocate for them through the sticky maze that has become American health care.

If you could change one thing about the practice or business of medicine, what would it be?

To take charge of the insurance companies and drug companies who tell us how to practice medicine. To bring back the “art” of medicine instead of always promoting the business of medicine.

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

The absolute most amazing change is the work on the HIV and the HPV viruses and the marketing of Gardasil, the HPV vaccine. My first job out of PA school was in gyn/oncology where I personally saw several young women die of cervical cancer. To have the possibility to totally prevent that cancer is incredible.

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

To love what you do enough to stay with the profession to help change it. As Maude said in “Harold and Maude “, “I can’t help liking people. They’re my species!” It’s important to like people if one is going to practice medicine-in any way.

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

I see the reemergence of “dinosaurs” who practice medicine as an art, caring for people and advocating for them (hopefully their medical knowledge will be up to date!) The monolithic insurance companies and drug companies and HMO structures will collapse of their own weight and once more, smaller co-op structures may emerge. I hope a universal health care plan will come into being like the other first world nations.


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