When they’re knocking at death’s door, many patients see the face of Dr. Tiffany Willard, a trauma critical care surgeon at UCHealth Memorial Hospital.
“It’s a true statement that bad things happen fast and good things happen slowly,” said Dr. Willard.
She sees injuries that are the worst of the worst; people who have been shot, stabbed or assaulted. She treats victims of car accidents as well as patients with head injuries.
The road to becoming who she is wasn’t always clear and it certainly wasn’t easy.
“I almost gave up numerous times,” Dr. Willard remembered.
She grew up in Colorado Springs and was a track and cross country standout at Cheyenne Mountain High School.
She ran for the University of Kansas, and initially majored in International Business, but quickly learned that route wasn’t for her.
“The only classes I could stay awake for were Biology and Human Anatomy.”
She got into the University of Kansas School of Medicine, but that first surgery she assisted in didn’t look promising.
“I was exceptionally nervous to the point I almost passed out.”
She was excused that day, but with each subsequent surgery, she honed her skills and built her confidence.
Now she has thousands of cases under her belt, but in Dr. Willard’s particular specialty, there are a lot of bad days.
“The one thing I hate most about the job and it’ll never get easier is having to tell the family members and parents that their child has died. I just have to remind myself it’s not my fault. We’re here to help in any way we can. That’s the only way we can hold it together sometimes.”
There are, however, the moments that make it all worthwhile.
“Probably when you get that hug from that mom and they say, ‘you saved my kid’s life.'”
The operating room isn’t the only place Dr. Willard is saving lives.
She wants kids, as young as fifth graders, to see the consequences of skateboarding without a helmet, driving drunk or playing with guns.
“I will give them that information and the most blatant and gruesome way.”
Over the past five years, she has done demonstrations at more than 100 local schools.
The kids think they’re just hearing about a day in the life, but then Dr. Willard’s cell phone rings, and they get to see a day in the life.
That’s when medical students wheel in a mannequin.
The kids put on scrubs, masks and gloves and help save ‘the patient.’
Dr. Willard’s hope is that the experience encourage them to make better choices because she knows all too well how quickly it can all end.
“It will never cease to amaze me that someone’s life is perfect and five minutes later they could be gone. It happens every single day of my job.”
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