Grace: Amid tragedy, doctors in Creighton pathology lab tried to stay focused -
Published Wednesday, July 17, 2013 at 12:01 am / Updated at 12:32 pm
Grace: Amid tragedy, doctors in Creighton pathology lab tried to stay focused

The tour of Creighton University Medical Center's pathology lab is brisk.

Here are some huge machines. Here is someone in green scrubs hurriedly ferrying a specimen.

Dr. Poonam Sharma, chairwoman of the pathology department, walks quickly in her heels a day after police announced they'd caught the man they believe killed four people connected to her department, including a colleague.

Sharma is offering an inside look into what might have been one of the hardest places to work in Omaha given the loss they had experienced.

Yet all along, Sharma said, they tried to keep things normal.

Normal despite the slaying of a pathologist and his wife — a second grisly crime to befall the department in five years.

Normal even though it appeared pathologists like her were being targeted, and no one knew why.

After their colleague Dr. Roger Brumback and his wife, Mary, were slain in May, Sharma had Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer come talk to the staff.

They were more vigilant, but doctors didn't seek police protection, as was rumored.

Sharma and her husband, Sanjeev, a family practice doctor also working at the medical center on North 30th Street, took the somewhat passive step of asking their home security company for a video surveillance code. With the code, they could essentially watch real-time surveillance footage of their Omaha home from their computers at work.

But the Sharmas never did. They were busy at work and didn't want to feed into their own fears.

“You can't live your life in fear,” said Poonam Sharma. “I didn't think about it each moment of my life. But it was especially in the back of my mind.”

The Sharmas told their 18-year-old daughter, back from college out of state, to be watchful and text them her whereabouts.

But beyond that, Poonam Sharma had a job to do.

The 44-year-old former obstetrician, who once trained at the Royal College in London, had made pathology a second career. She is now running one of Nebraska's biggest pathology departments, with 12 faculty members, 10 medical residents and 95 to 100 other clinical staff. The lab performs a million tests a year and coordinates almost as many tests with the VA Medical Center.

The medical buck stops in pathology. Any test for cancer or disease is run here.

The onus, Sharma said, is on us.

What kept them going, she said, was the work. The mission to serve patients.

Plus, what do you say around the watercooler? How do you talk about that darling, tousle-haired 11-year-old boy Thomas, the son of your colleague Dr. Bill Hunter? Or the Hunters' housekeeper, Shirlee Sherman, who was there when the killer came to the Dundee house on a March afternoon in 2008? How do you talk about the Brumbacks, whose bodies were found on a May morning?

Sharma and the others were horrified. They were bereft. Frightened. Unsure of what to say to each other. Plus police were calling them individually with questions about the crimes. Yet they soldiered on.

These pathologists, who are trained to be medical detectives, were nagged by their own questions in the unsolved murders: Who would do this? Why? And was anyone next?

Some answers came Monday and provided a measure of comfort, closure and shock.

The man charged with the murders had once worked among them in this same pathology lab. He had once won one of the residency spots in a program so competitive that up to 300 apply for just two to three openings in Creighton's four-year program. He had been terminated — a move so rare, Sharma couldn't remember another time it happened in her nearly 10 years there.

Being terminated would have been devastating, she said.

“Our training is stringent,” she said. “It takes time. It takes effort. It takes money.”

Yes, some medical residents wash out of their programs for various reasons. Maybe the specialty isn't the right fit, and advisers help them find another medical field.

But termination is different, Sharma says. Termination makes it hard to find another placement. Termination can destroy your career.

Former pathology resident Dr. Anthony J. Garcia was terminated after a year at Creighton and before Sharma's time there.

Hunter and Brumback made the decision because, according to police, Garcia exhibited erratic behavior. He is now accused of killing Thomas Hunter, Shirlee Sherman and Roger and Mary Brumback.

Garcia's face flashed on TV and computer screens Monday.

When it did, Sharma stood with her colleague and friend, Bill Hunter, and watched a police press conference from a computer in the pathology department.

Brave as he's been, thought Sharma, this must have been very hard on Bill.

Sharma could do little else but offer her presence. To just be there.

On Tuesday, it was Sharma's face flashing on TV.

She said how relieved they all were, how grateful to police, how they will continue on.

“Certainly this news has brought closure,” she said. “We will continue to focus on our daily tasks. I believe that is the best way to move forward.”

Contact the writer: Erin Grace    |   402-444-1136    |  

Erin is a columnist who tries to find interesting stories and get them into the paper. She's drawn to the idea that everyday life offers something extraordinary.

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