Richard Steenburg, MD was destined to be a physician from the time he was a child, following in the footsteps of both his father and his grandfather. “My grandfather was a horse and buggy doctor who provided health care for a 60-mile radius covering most of the middle of the state of Nebraska. My father was a Harvard-trained general surgeon,” he recalls. “From an early age, all I ever thought about doing was becoming a surgeon. In fact, by 10 years of age, I would go after school and observe my father in surgery.”
A graduate of Aurora Public Schools, Dr. Steenburg attended Stanford University, Harvard Medical School and completed his surgical training at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital. Early in his career, he served on the faculty at Johns Hopkins and became chief of surgery at Baltimore City Hospital, as the first transplant program in Maryland was developed. In 1970, he moved back home to Nebraska, where he built a transplant program from the ground up, and where his education, training and passion continue to have an impact on patients and families today.
“He trained with the best of the best. It was amazing he was willing to come back to the Midwest and get the program started,” says Tavi Baker, who worked for Dr. Steenburg in the 70s and 80s and continues to serve as a nephrology coordinator at Nebraska Medicine.
“He taught us everything. You watched and listened; he talked and explained,” remembers Mary Ellen Krobot, a kidney/pancreas transplant coordinator, who also worked with Dr. Steenburg throughout his 17-year career at Clarkson Hospital. “It’s how I learned the basics. He was a great teacher and wanted people to understand what’s going on.”
Much has changed since 1970, when Dr. Steenburg performed the first kidney transplant in Nebraska. “At the time local surgeons weren’t trained in the proper technique of recovering organs,” he says. “On many of the first transplants, I would fly or drive to hospitals in outlying areas and recover the organs.” Once the kidneys were tissue typed, the team would identify the most appropriate recipients and have them come to the hospital. Then, the patients would receive dialysis, a blood transfusion and be prepared for surgery. “The typical transplant usually took about three hours. Between recovering the organs, preparing the patients and then transplanting the kidneys into the recipients, it wasn’t uncommon to work 24-30 hours straight,” Dr. Steenburg says.
All the work was completed without modern electronic health records – or even computers. Baker and Krobot remember sorting through handwritten lab results and communicating with typed letters. Paper flow sheets were hanging on the walls outside patients’ rooms and Dr. Steenburg memorized many of each patient’s details. “All of the patient information, drug therapies and lab work was kept in paper copy in the patient’s chart,” he says. “But many subtleties of managing a patient were done using one’s head.”
Before Dr. Steenburg retired in 1987, he performed 501 kidney transplants. Many of the transplant patients are still living, including some of the first patients from 1970 and his final transplant patient, who received a kidney in April 1987. “Historically, patients with renal failure requiring dialysis were kept on dialysis until their insurance ran out. We were able to provide these very needy patients a chance to live,” he says. Because of Dr. Steenburg, teens were able to go to college, women were able to raise their families and older people were able to meet their grandchildren.
Dr. Steenburg’s impact continues to be strong today, as Nebraska Medicine treats more than 1,500 functioning kidney/pancreas patients following their transplants. Hundreds more are impacted by the Nebraska Organ Recovery System, which serves all of Nebraska and Pottawattamie County, Iowa. The basis of the nonprofit organization started in a closet of Dr. Steenburg’s operating room. Now, it handles the recovery, transportation and distribution of all organs and tissue for transplantation in the area.
Nearly 30 years have passed since Dr. Steenburg’s retirement, one thing that hasn’t changed – his patients adore him. “They looked at him as their lifeline,” says Baker. Children drew pictures of him, patients continue to ask about him and many participated in a card shower in honor of his 75th birthday fifteen years ago. “Patient satisfaction is probably the best indicator of performance. Hearing from so many patients so many years later led me to believe that we provided a high standard of patient care,” says Dr. Steenburg. That standard of care continues to be Dr. Steenburg’s legacy, more than four decades after his first, ground-breaking kidney transplant in Nebraska.