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Midwestern values support woman’s lifelong dreams

Tina Sauerhammer is the youngest to graduate from UWGB, UW Medical School and was a member of the medical team for the first full face transplant

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April 5, 2023

GREEN BAY – Born and raised in Green Bay, Tina Sauerhammer said the values and education she gained from growing up in the Midwest propelled her into a successful career as a plastic surgeon. 

Sauerhammer, who now runs her own practice – Wisconsin Institute of Plastic Surgery – said she works to give back to a community that has helped her throughout the years. 

Tracing back to her roots
As an only child, Sauerhammer said her work ethic started at a young age from her parents – who also put a heavy focus on her education.

“My parents both worked hard, and they’ve always told me, ‘You have to work hard if you want to achieve your dreams and your goals,’” she said.

From age two through eighth grade, Sauerhammer said she attended a Montessori school, which is “what afforded me the ability to go to college early.”

Since students at Montessori school can work at their own pace, by the time Sauerhammer had finished eighth grade, she had already completed the entire high school curriculum and was taking classes at St. Norbert College.

When presented with the opportunity to start college early, she said she “didn’t want to waste any time.”

“I have no idea why, but I’ve always wanted to be a doctor,” she said. “And I knew it was going to be a long haul. So, I decided to go to college… (we) worked with the dean of admissions at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay (UWGB) – they had never had a 14-year-old apply to school.”

After taking a summer biology course and ranking at the top of her class, Sauerhammer said she was admitted to the university full-time. 

The transition for her, she said, was pretty natural.

“Even though I was 14 years old at the time, emotionally, I was more of an 18-year-old – just like everybody else at college,” she said. 

Sauerhammer said she had graduated from UWGB at 18 – the university’s youngest graduate ever.

“I think for me that was such an accomplishment,” she said. “It was something I worked hard for – it wasn’t something that was just handed to me.”

Sauerhammer said she then attended the University of Wisconsin Medical School, where she also became the school’s youngest graduate ever – at age 22.

“For me, it’s a reflection of the strong work ethics my parents had instilled in me,” she said. “I truly believe if you have a goal, you can achieve anything if you work hard toward it.”

Midwest eye-opening
After completing her general surgery residency at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Sauerhammer said she moved to Boston for her plastic surgery residency at Lahey Clinic.

The move marked her first time living outside of Wisconsin, which she said was an “eye-opening experience.”

“The work ethic we have (in Wisconsin) is bar none – you’re not going to find that anywhere else in the country,” she said.
Making the move also caused Sauerhammer to appreciate aspects of home she may not have before.

“I was never a Packers fan,” she laughed. “I mean, I appreciate the team, but never really cared much for them. All of a sudden, I moved to Boston and I’m like this huge Packers fan, which was kind of fun.”

Sauerhammer said one of the defining moments she had realized how important it was growing up with Midwest values happened when she was on call during her plastic surgery training.

“As a plastic surgery resident, you’ll get called a lot to the emergency room for lacerations,” she said. “A lot of times, lacerations can be minimal… if it’s a small laceration, it could be taken care of by the emergency room doctor.”

In this particular situation, Sauerhammer said she was called in to treat a child with a small laceration.

“And so that’s what I did,” she said. “I treated the patient, fixed the laceration and didn’t think anything of it. I was doing my job – that’s what you’re supposed to do.”

Sauerhammer said she didn’t think anything of it until later when she received unexpected praise.

“I got an email from the emergency room doctor who had called me… basically thanking me for coming in, being kind, taking care of the patient – easily for doing my job – and I thought that was odd,” she said. “I didn’t think anything of it, but I guess they were surprised by that.”

// Sauerhammer, the youngest graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, started her own practice, Wisconsin Institute of Plastic Surgery, about three years ago. Submitted Photo

She said the instance helped her realize how important it was to have her Midwest values.

“That’s what I’m supposed to do – that’s my job,” she said. “I have to go in and take care of the patient. And I think having those values instilled in me has also made me a good doctor.”

First full face transplant
While completing her residency at Lahey, Sauerhammer was on the team that performed the first full transplant, which she said was “pretty spectacular.”

“I happened to be at the right place at the right time,” she said.

Sauerhammer said during her residency, she often rotated and worked with a bunch of different hospitals.

Toward the end of one of her rotation days, Sauerhammer said she heard there was a potential donor for a full-face transplant, and she would be on standby.

“Before that, I didn’t realize this was even in the works, but apparently, they had been working toward this for a while,” she said. “They had a patient from Texas who was the recipient… he was volunteering at a church and was on one of those cherry-picker (machines), and he caught a live wire and was shocked, so his whole face was completely disfigured.”

Sauerhammer said she received a page in the middle of the night that the face transplant was happening and needed to come in.

“There were probably at least 20 people in the room,” she said. “The total surgery itself took 17-18 hours… It went so smoothly. Even though this was the first time they had ever done such a thing, it almost felt like they’d been doing this for years. It was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. That was just such an experience, and to be able to be a part of history was incredible.”

Making a difference at home
Now, Sauerhammer said she is making a difference back home in Green Bay – something she said she feels honored to do.

“I would not be where I am today without the community,” she said. “I have a strong passion that I need to give back to them because there’s going to be another Tina Sauerhammer out there who is going to do amazing things as well. You have to give those young people the resources to be able to do those great things.”

The M.D. said she has been on the board of directors for UWGB for nearly 10 years and currently serves as its chair.

Sauerhammer said having a university in Green Bay is special and is part of what attracts people to this area.

“So, we have to be able to have all the resources to raise these young people,” she said.

Speaking from her own experiences, Sauerhammer said her time away further cemented that.

“It’s important to leave for a little bit so you can appreciate what you have back here,” she said. “But then to be able to come back and use all those experiences… and to help grow and enhance our community.”

About three years ago, Sauerhammer said she started her own plastic surgery practice – Wisconsin Institute of Plastic Surgery (which has locations in De Pere and Appleton), so she could give the quality care she wanted to each patient.

“(It’s) the best thing I’ve ever done,” she said. “We have a dermatology division and a plastic surgery division now… it’s been exciting to see this come to fruition.”

Sauerhammer said her mom owns a sewing business in Green Bay, and being able to combine her mother’s entrepreneurial spirit with her medical background has been “really fun and exciting.”

She said she is also continuously learning from her employees – something she is grateful for.

“(My staff) inspires me on a daily basis…,” she said. “(We’re) bringing a completely different business model to medicine.”

Sauerhammer said the Wisconsin Institute of Plastic Surgery specializes in skin cancer screenings, breast augmentations, acne and rosacea treatments and more. 

“I feel like with everything – my schooling, my education, involvement with the community – all of that has come full circle now with my business,” she said. “I feel like now I’m contributing in a meaningful way back to the community, and being part of the business community now, too.”

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