Room To Breathe
Becoming a physician wasn’t first on Marlin Stahl’s list of things to do in life, until he was challenged by a very close friend.
The two were students at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. Stahl’s friend was studying pre-med, and the friend’s father was a Lincoln pathologist whom Stahl had come to know and admire.
Still, the idea of joining his friend in the pursuit of a medical degree didn’t seem a good fit to the young man who had grown up in Harvard, Neb., a town with a few more or a few less than 1,000 people, depending upon the day.
“My father was heavily oriented in agriculture,” Stahl says. “His training came as an ag and farm agent, and he was a farm agent at the bank in Harvard before he became its vice president. My brothers and I did 4-H. Our school consisted of one building for K–12. There were only about 30 kids in my class.”
He grew up increasingly fond of the small-town atmosphere. “They were halcyon times,” he says. “You could get on your bike and explore the entire town, go down to the little creeks and hunt for frogs, swipe an apricot off a neighbor’s tree. We only had one rule — be home by dinner time.
“Honestly, I thought it would be quite pretentious to study medicine, coming from small-town Nebraska.”
Especially when he considered the lasting impression of his own doctor in Harvard. “He was a scary guy,” he recalls. “No matter what was wrong with you, you got a shot. And that was back when he’d have to grind his own needles, so when you got a shot, it really did hurt.”
Despite all those reservations, Stahl decided to accept his friend’s challenge and study medicine.
Gary Davison is one of many of Dr. Stahl’s patients today who are very grateful he did.
After receiving his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Nebraska in Lincoln (UNL), Dr. Stahl went on to earn his medical degree from the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) in 1979. He completed internships in family practice through the Lincoln Family Practice Program and in internal medicine through UNMC. He served as a resident in internal medicine at UNMC, and in 1985 he completed a fellowship in pulmonary and critical care medicine at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.
Since that time, Dr. Stahl’s career and achievements have centered upon clinical medical direction. As assistant professor of medicine at UNMC specializing in pulmonary and critical care medicine, he was director of the pulmonary fellowship training program and conducted research in cell biology concerning lung defense and injury.
From 1987 until 2005, Dr. Stahl specialized in pulmonary and critical care with Internal Medicine Associates, PC, a private practice multi-specialty group of 40 member physicians for which he served as president from 2001 until 2004.
At Clarkson Hospital and now The Nebraska Medical Center, he has taken on numerous leadership roles including medical director of Respiratory Care and chairman of Special Care Units.
Today he is president of Nebraska Pulmonary Medicine, PC, where he provides private practice consulting in pulmonary diseases, medical direction and healthcare facility design. He is board president of Clarkson Regional Health Services, a member of The Nebraska Medical Center Board and the board of the Bellevue Medical Center, where he also serves as physician leader for integrated technology. His list of certifications, specialty training, community service, member organizations and honors is long, impressive and growing.
Yet none of that mattered to Gary Davison when he first met Dr. Stahl in 1992.
Originally from Tecumseh, Neb., Davison has Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, an inherited condition that can cause lung disease in adults or liver disease in children and adults.
“I’m one of seven kids,” Davison says. “My parents were carriers, and four of us kids have Alpha-1.”
Alpha-1 antitrypsin (AAT) is a protein that protects the lungs. The liver usually makes the protein and releases it into the bloodstream. A deficiency of AAT increases the risk of emphysema and other serious lung and liver problems. The condition can be treated — but not cured.
Davison was diagnosed with severe AAT deficiency in 1984. “They told me nothing could be done, so I went home to die,” he says. “Every month it got worse.”
Davison’s wife, Lill, is a nurse. She began researching for any options, which eventually included a lung transplant. In early 1992, Davison underwent a double-lung transplant at a hospital in St. Louis. After his return to Omaha, doctors at Immanuel Hospital recommended he become a patient of Dr. Stahl, who at the time was practicing at Clarkson. “I’ve been with him ever since,” says Davison.
A semi-retired building supply salesman, Davison sees Dr. Stahl every month, and he returns to St. Louis for examination annually. He’s faced several bouts of rejection and infection and also has had a pacemaker implanted. Through it all, he says, Dr. Stahl has been there, answering questions, providing support and instilling the confidence Davison needs to survive.
“Dr. Stahl is really concerned about my disease and condition,” he says. “He goes over every one of the tests with me line by line, answering any questions I might have. He’s very professional. He goes out of his way to make sure I understand what’s going on.”
Davison, 62, recalls being told that even with a double-lung transplant, his survival was likely limited to five years. That was 18 years ago.
“Dr. Stahl has saved my life many times,” he says. “I wouldn’t trade him for 10 doctors.”
Neither would Penny Parker.
Parker, executive director of the Omaha chapter of Camp Fire USA, has asthma and has been a patient of Dr. Stahl for “maybe 20 years.”
“My asthma is totally controlled with meds,” she says. “He’s found the right magic for me.”
Parker has little trouble finding the words to compliment her specialist.
“He has such a calm manner about him,” she says. “He puts you at complete ease. He listens so well, and because he listens, he really makes you feel as a patient that he cares.”
And although he’s chiefly a pulmonologist, Parker says that Dr. Stahl “is the person I would go to first for anything concerning me medically.”
She speaks from extensive experience. Since suffering a stroke in 1975 at age 25, Parker says she has “dealt with a variety of doctors and all sorts of personalities.”
In Dr. Stahl, she says, she has found the unique combination of a caring manner and impressive expertise.
“He sees the patient as a partner in the treatment,” she says. “I have a very stressful job and there are times when things are happening in my life that affect my health. He has the amazing ability to listen to me, ask good questions and put all the pieces together.
“You couldn’t find a better or more committed physician.”
Beyond his practice, Dr. Stahl enjoys traveling with his wife, Becky, especially to northern Italy. He also likes to garden.
“I like gardening because, beyond the weather, it’s pretty much in your control,” he says. “So much in life is outside of your control.”
Caring for others apparently runs in the family. Dr. Stahl and his late wife, Rosemary, have a son, Tyler, who is studying theology at Seattle University and is planning to become a pastoral counselor.
Ensuring quality of care is an admitted passion of Dr. Stahl’s. “I hope to continue extending my clinical experience into the role of how we care for patients and how we can do better,” he says.
That is why he became involved in healthcare consulting and serves on the Information Technology Steering Committee and the Performance Improvement Coordinating Committee. He also is physician leader for integrated technology for the new Bellevue Medical Center.
“I believe the future is dependent upon leveraging informatics,” he says. “Hospital operations are very heavy in data collecting and monitoring, but writing everything down has become archaic. We need to recreate what we have done in the past and modify our actions for the future to become best practice, and that requires electronic medical records (EMR).”
Although preserving medical records electronically does have some additional cost and time factors, Dr. Stahl says ultimately they’re worth it.
“When I do my patient entries, it probably takes five minutes more per record initially,” he says. “If I’ve seen 10 patients, that’s 50 more minutes that day. But I see it as time well spent. The records are complete, reviewable, standardized and codified. That makes my next visit more efficient.
“Improving efficiencies and outcomes are things I see as essential, not as an inconvenience.”
With EMR, patients have the ability to grant access to their medical records no matter if they are across the state or halfway around the world, Dr. Stahl says.
“If you travel and become ill, wouldn’t you think it would be logical that your medical records here in Omaha, with your authorization, should be made available to the doctors wherever you are?” he asks. “It’s not rocket science. We have the capability, and I think it will happen in my lifetime.
“Innovation requires leadership, and I’m willing to do all I can to contribute and set the course.”
It’s just one more challenge being met head-on by the kid from small-town Nebraska.