2003 Alumnus of the Year:
A Homegrown Hero
Born, raised and educated in Nevada, William Zamboni is one of the world's finest plastic surgeons
By John Wheeler
It’s not an exaggeration to say that 2003 Alumnus of the Year, plastic surgeon William Zamboni, MD, has transformed surgical care in Las Vegas. Before he helped establish the state’s first limb reattachment center at University Medical Center in 1994, patients who suffered an amputation had to be transported to Utah or California for treatment — a time-consuming journey that greatly reduced the chances of a successful outcome. Today, a person in Las Vegas who loses a limb has as good a chance of success as anywhere in the country. “It’s a very smooth operation,” Zamboni says of the network he helped create and educate. “From the paramedics to the OR nurses to the recovery room nurses to the surgeons to the instrumentation — it’s all there.”
In addition to his prowess as a surgeon, Zamboni, an alumnus of both the University of Nevada and the University of Nevada School of Medicine, is known worldwide for his groundbreaking research. Zamboni has found that putting reattachment patients in a chamber with 100 percent oxygen under higher than normal pressure greatly enhances healing after surgery. It’s also enabled him to extend the narrow window during which successful reattachment can occur after amputation. “About four to six hours is pretty much the maximum,” he says. “But we have been able to save limbs up to 14 hours through the use of hyperbaric oxygen treatment.”
If that weren’t enough, Zamboni also teaches in the School of Medicine, offering inspiration to the next generation of Nevada’s physicians. “I wish I had six more like Bill Zamboni,” says School of Medicine Vice Dean Michael Harter, as he enthuses about Zamboni’s productivity and dedication.
Despite a packed schedule that frequently sees him extending his workweek into Saturday, Zamboni doesn’t plan to ease up any time soon. He’s excited about plans for an academic medical center in Las Vegas. “I’d like to make this a real productive academic center for excellence in surgery,” he says. “Something like UCLA or Harvard. There are tons of obstacles, but there’s no reason that we can’t get to that level of academia. That’s my goal.”
I saw my reflection in the snow-covered hills ‘til the landslide brought me down.” The precise harmonies of the Fleetwood Mac song emanate from a boom box in the corner of an operating room at Valley View Surgery Center in Las Vegas. A few feet away, under bright amber lights, a skilled group of a different kind — surgeons — works in equally tight-knit harmony.
Nevada’s premier plastic surgeon, William Zamboni, is carefully poking around in what looks like scrambled eggs or perhaps macaroni and cheese exposed through a gaping hole in a man’s inside upper arm. Occasionally the air is filled with a pungent burning smell as one of the two surgeons working with Zamboni cauterizes a blood vessel. It’s surrealistically easy to forget that underneath the sheets on the gurney is a living, breathing human being. The man’s head is covered and there’s no blood to remind you of his humanity.
“Surgeons don’t like to see a lot of blood and guts in the OR,” Zamboni says, explaining that a tourniquet is being used, allowing the surgeons to work in a pristine environment. The operation is an ulnar nerve transposition — the repair of a pinched nerve. Zamboni locates the nerve and redirects it into muscle “where it will be happier and won’t be pinched any more,” he says cheerfully as he performs the maneuver.
The atmosphere in the operating room is far removed from the highly charged stereotypical movie version. No “Swab! Scalpel!” and sweaty furrows here. The surgeons and technicians chat throughout the operation, often pausing for levity. Zamboni takes a dig at scrub nurse Tonya Wright, who’s wearing dark prescription glasses, having broken her regular ones. He introduces her as “Missy Tonya, the rapper.” The appellation gets a hearty laugh. All the while, the surgeons continue their harmony and counterpoint, each moving in and out of the surgical field, never coming close to interfering with each other. Third-year general surgery resident Bisher Hijazi begins sewing up the repackaged scrambled eggs, no longer likely to be a source of distress for the patient sleeping peacefully beneath the covers.
It’s taken Zamboni and his team about half an hour to complete the surgery. It seems startlingly quick, and it is — a fact confirmed by the third member of the surgery team, Dr. Himansu Shah.
“The speed that he works at is just amazing,” Shah says. “And it’s efficient. That’s what I’d like to have myself; that’s what I’d like to walk away with.” Shah is weeks from completing a one-year microsurgery residency with Zamboni but Zamboni has invited the plastic surgeon to stay on to work in his practice.
“He’s the most efficient person I know,” Shah says. “I’ve worked with lots of different physicians in the past. Most are very stringent in what they do. He is a different person. It’s a very enjoyable experience. He knows exactly what he has to do and approaches it in a very organized fashion. You’re done with things very quickly and still get excellent outcomes.”
Efficiency. Zamboni makes no bones about what it means to him.
“In the operating room, it’s a big deal to me,” he says. “It’s not necessarily how fast you are, or even how accurate you may be, it’s how efficient you are with your movements and with your designing of operations. It’s all about efficiency.
“I was always taught growing up to work hard and be efficient,” he says. “It’s the only way you can have free time and do three jobs, which is pretty much what I’m doing.”
Zamboni will typically see 40-50 patients in his office three mornings a week and then drive over to the surgery center for three or four surgeries in the afternoon. His wife of 15 years, Karen, a registered nurse, helps part time in his office. The couple met in Illinois when Zamboni was a third-year general surgery resident and Karen was a nursing student. “I get to see her at work and that’s nice,” Zamboni says.
He doesn’t eat breakfast or lunch: “Your body adjusts,” he says, sipping a Starbucks coffee between surgeries. He operates every weekday except Tuesday, his committed administrative day. Zamboni is also chairman of the University of Nevada School of Medicine Department of Surgery — only the fifth plastic surgeon in the nation to achieve such an honor, having done so at an age that also makes him one of the youngest surgery chairmen in the country.
“I never aspired to be chairman of a surgery department this early,” he says of the job he describes as the biggest challenge of his career. Zamboni is chairman at what could well be an historic moment in the medical school’s history, with prospects for a new academic medical center having greatly improved in recent months.
“I’m optimistic,” Zamboni says. “President [John] Lilley’s support of an academic medical center in Las Vegas is probably the number one reason I’m still in this job [chairman] after one year. You have to have support from the chain of command. I think we have real potential now to take this forward.”
An academic medical center would provide Zamboni and his peers the research space they so badly need. Zamboni, working out of just 380 square feet on the UNLV campus, has done groundbreaking research on the use of hyperbaric oxygen therapy for limb reattachment patients. “It’s probably the most productive lab per square feet in the country,” Zamboni says with pride. “We will put out anywhere between six and eight manuscripts a year.”
Zamboni’s research involves reducing the amount of damage to muscle or tissue that has had blood supply cut off.
“The problem is, after a limb has been amputated for a period of time, even if you bring the blood supply back to it by reattaching it through microsurgery, it can still die because it’s been off too long. About four to six hours is pretty much the maximum,” he explains.
However, by putting patients who have had a limb reattached in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber immediately after surgery, Zamboni has had successful results even after as long as 14 hours. He recalls one of his most rewarding reattachment surgeries: that of a four-year-old boy who had his leg severed at mid-calf when he slipped on wet grass and slid underneath a lawn mower. All that remained was a small bridge of skin on the back of the leg. In addition, eight hours had passed before Zamboni could begin surgery.
“That’s probably the most gratifying case I’ve experienced because this child ended up with an almost normal leg,” Zamboni says.
Zamboni’s research has shown that a single session of 60-90 minutes in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber within six hours of completion of reattachment surgery prevents reperfusion injury. “It blocks white blood cells from sticking to blood vessels and therefore the blood flow doesn’t clog up,” Zamboni says, explaining the process.
He first began exploring the possibilities of this treatment after reading about the case of the baby in Midland, Texas who fell down a well — the famous 1987 Jessica McClure incident.
“She had a crush injury to her leg and the doctor treated her with hyperbaric oxygen,” Zamboni says, adding that subsequent letters in the Journal of the American Medical Association criticized the treatment. “After reading that, I thought: ‘Well, let’s go in the lab and either prove it or disprove it.’ That’s sort of how I got into it.”
It’s close to 3 p.m. and Zamboni readies for operation number two: a total breast reconstruction. The patient, who has silicon gel implants, has one breast in which the silicon has leaked. The other breast has become rock hard due to scar tissue. She has come to Zamboni to repair the damage. He is thoughtful and measured as he readies for the surgery.
“These can be pretty complicated sometimes,” he says. How long does he expect the surgery to take? “She doesn’t leave that operating room until it looks right,” he replies. Fortunately, the procedure goes smoothly and the team is able to relax and discuss home refinancing. “Wow, who’s your bank?” Zamboni asks, as he reaches his hand into an incision below the woman’s left breast and pulls out lumps of scar tissue.
From time to time, he picks up a small plastic bottle and squirts saline solution in and around the surgical area. “These bottles are six for $2 at Costco,” Zamboni says. He’s telling the truth, but can’t help adding a quip. “We’re keeping down the cost of health care in Nevada,” he says.
After raising the gurney so that the patient is in an upright position, Zamboni checks that the new implants are symmetrical. He sets her back down and works on her some more, removing and reinserting one of the new implants.
“A little modification takes it from being a good result to a perfect result,” he says. Meanwhile, the conversation has shifted to the day Zamboni “got T-boned by a woman on I-15 at Sahara.” He was somehow able to throw himself into the passenger side before impact. “My Starbucks coffee was still there with the cap on,” he tells the enthralled listeners. “It made my whole day; my car was totaled.”
Fifty-two minutes after the surgery began, the woman is wheeled to the recovery room and the surgeons head to their lounge for a few minutes break. They will perform two more surgeries that afternoon. It’s a seemingly hectic schedule, but Zamboni shows no sign of being stressed.
“It’s just all frame of mind,” he says. “Being focused. That’s why you give up your 20s and spend all those years training to have the expertise to do what you do.”
Jack Goetz, Alumni Association Service Award
Goetz, a 1943 electrical engineering alumnus, is a member of the Alumni Council and chairman of the University Club scholarship committee. He also maintains an interest in furthering the quality of the electrical engineering department.
Charles Walsh, Alumni Association Service Award
Walsh, a 1986 physical education alumnus, has served on the Alumni Council, the Homecoming Committee, and as chairman of the Silver Scholar and Alumni-Student Relations committees. He has also been an avid, but informal, Wolf Pack recruiter at the five Nevada high schools where he coached track and football.
Keith L. Lee, University Service Award
Lee, a Reno lawyer with his own practice, has served as a trustee for the University of Nevada, Reno Foundation for 10 years and as chairman for the past three years. He was also a second-generation ASUN president.
Bradley H. Roberts, University Service Award
Roberts first came to the university as a visiting professor in 1984. Over the past 19 years, he has been a member of 13 university-related boards and committees, including serving as a Foundation trustee and chairman of the advisory board to the College of Business Administration.
Wendy Damonte, Outstanding Young Alumni Award
Damonte (formerly Wendy Wyness, Journalism ’94) became one of the youngest journalists to become a main anchor in northern Nevada in 2000 at the age of 28. Since then, she has anchored the 5 p.m., 5:30 p.m., and 6 p.m. news broadcasts for KTVN Channel 2 in Reno.
Timothy D. Casey, Professional Achievement Award
Casey, 1984 electrical engineering alumnus, is currently a partner at Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, a major New York law firm dealing with cases of intellectual property and technology. Prior to that, he was senior vice president of law for MCI. Casey also has been a member of the electrical engineering department’s advisory board.
Jeff Ceccarelli, Professional Achievement Award
Ceccarelli (civil engineering ’76) began his career at Sierra Pacific Power as a student engineer while attending Nevada in 1972. Over the next 31 years, he received numerous promotions, and is now president of the company.
James A. Gibbons, Professional Achievement Award
Gibbons, U.S. congressman, was first elected to represent Nevada’s 2nd Congressional District in 1996. Currently, he serves on four committees and several caucuses. Before coming to Congress, Gibbons had an extensive military career in the Air Force. He has combat experience in Vietnam and the Gulf War.
Roger Trounday, Professional Achievement Award
Trounday, a 1956 graduate, has served the state throughout his career, which has ranged from elementary school teacher to chairman of the state Gaming Control Board. During his time as chair, he successfully helped decrease organized crime’s influence on the gaming industry.
Three added to the Wolf Pack Hall of Fame
By John Trent
- Robbin Thein was one of the mainstays of Nevada’s national women’s swimming power of the early 1980s.
- Todd Wilcks provided the anchor to the Pack’s yardage-churning rushing game of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
- Kevin Soares was the floor general of a men’s basketball team that came oh-so-close to gaining a berth to the NCAA Tournament in 1992.
Thein, a Wooster High School product, finished third in the 200-yard backstroke at the NCAA Division II Championships, and fourth in the 100 backstroke in 1982. She set a national record and took first place in the 200 backstroke at the 1983 NCAA Division II Championships. She also took second place in the 100 backstroke and third in the 50 backstroke in the same meet. Thein was named Woman Athlete of the Year in 1983.
Wilcks earned Associated Press All-America honors in 1981. His devastating blocking was a key reason why running back Frank Hawkins led the nation in rushing that season and earned votes in the race for the Heisman Trophy. Wilcks’ four years at Nevada saw the Pack compile a 32-13-1 record. He was selected to the school’s Team of the Century in 1998.
Soares was Big Sky Conference Co-Player of the Year in 1991-1992. A four-year starter, the product of Bishop Gorman High in Las Vegas set Big Sky career marks for steals and assists. He led Nevada to a 19-10 record in 1991-92, including a heartbreaking loss to Montana in the finals of the Big Sky Conference Tournament championship game.