Mayo physician welcomes a challenge

Dr. Jim Steckelberg

When Dr. Jim Steckelberg started medical school at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine in 1979, he had no set plans to stay. Thirty-five years later, the 1975 University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate is Mayo’s emeritus chair of infectious diseases.

While it’s unusual for a doctor to remain at the same institution for medical school, residency and fellowship, it is not uncommon for doctors at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

“There is little turnover here,” Steckelberg said. “At each step, I would look around and think, ‘where should I go for the next part?’, and each time it seemed the best thing to stay. The programs are all so good.”

A native of Fremont, Nebraska, Steckelberg did not always intend to become a doctor, either. He followed his brother, Allen, who is now an associate professor in UNL’s Department of Teaching, Learning and Teacher Education, to UNL and double-majored in mathematics and computer science. His intellectual love for the topics and the challenges they presented were right up his alley, he said.

“College at UNL was the best time of my life,” Steckelberg said. “I couldn’t have been happier with the education I got there. In my current role, I see people from all over with different educational backgrounds, and UNL is a terrific place.”

When Steckelberg arrived on campus, his mathematics professors Jim Lewis and Gordon Woodward were only in their second year at UNL – but to Steckelberg, they were already inspiring teachers.

“Jim was always able to bring out the best in folks,” Steckelberg said. “Some students are easier than others, but he had a hallmark for being exceptionable with everybody, even the, shall we say, less motivated. He has been an inspiration for generations of students.”

After being selected for a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship to attend Oxford, he left UNL planning to pursue a Ph.D. in mathematics. But, his plans all changed after an illness caused him to end up in the hospital and spend three months on a ventilator.

“When I came out of the hospital, I made a career shift,” Steckelberg said. “When I went to Oxford, I changed to human physiology from mathematics in preparation for medical school.”

Steckelberg had Mayo in mind after meeting the dean of its medical school during the Rhodes Scholar interview process. He started out in internal medicine and then developed an interest in infectious diseases during residency.

Now he is professor and past chair of a unit of 25 clinical infectious disease specialists. While he focuses on cardiovascular and bone and joint infections, his department also handles cases involving HIV, AIDS, tropical diseases, and transplant infections to name a few. Mayo sees patients from around the world and 10 percent to 15 percent are international, Steckelberg said. While no one with Ebola has come to Mayo yet, Steckelberg said the threat of this infectious disease has caused every referral center in the U.S. to be geared up to see it and have a plan for how to handle it.

A fan of pure mathematics because it’s a “thought experiment,” Steckelberg said he uses statistics the most in his current position, taking observational data and then making reasonable inferences.

He advises any current students considering medical school to “make sure it’s what you want to do. Don’t do it for glamour; it’s hard work. There are a lot of challenges, but I love it.”

He also met the love of his life, his wife, Christie, during medical school. She is now a nurse anesthetist at Mayo. They have three daughters, Chelsea, Rachel and Katie. Rachel and Katie are in anesthetist residency programs at UCLA and Mayo, respectively, and Chelsea is a medical social worker in Minneapolis.

For Steckelberg, all of these years at the bedsides of dying patients has made him appreciate his family even more.

“Remember what is really important in life, the relationships you have with the people you love,” he advised. “I’ve never had a patient say at the end of their life, ‘I wish I had spent more time at the office.’”