LuAnn Eidsness, M.D.
Dinnertime tales lead to career in medicine
By Pat Mack
Unusual conversations at the family dinner table had a major impact on LuAnn Eidsness '87 M.D., when she was a child growing up in Sioux Falls.
Her mother worked as a nurse in a surgeon's office. Her father was a funeral director. "I was fascinated to listen to stories of how they cared for people, both living and dead," Eidsness said. "My mother's stories often focused on the new medicines of that day and the importance of proper care. In those days funeral homes also functioned as the ambulance service with very basic first aid, so my father's stories would be about scary ambulance rides. He described them as 'pick up and run' to the nearest emergency room."
In a way, Eidsness has blended the careers of her parents. She worked for awhile as a nurse before obtaining her medical degree. "I see these dining table conversations as my first formal education in health care and the first step in my journey to becoming a physician," Eidsness said. "I also learned that caring for people was much more than the science – it was heartfelt care.
"Her siblings also were influenced to pursue "care-oriented" careers by the family chats. Eidsness' brother, Roe, became a funeral director, while her other brother, Tim, became a paramedic.
As a specialist in internal medicine, Eidsness practices hospice and palliative medicine and has become a state expert on end-of-life care as well as medical ethics.
"My clinical practice is hospice and palliative medicine, no doubt influenced by my parents during their life and in their dying and death and my work in ethics," Eidsness said. "I realized as a physician I could help people die with dignity and with comfort and help families in their struggle to let go."
Eidsness is the first woman chair of a clinical department at the medical school, being appointed to the position in 2004. She said she grew up in the feminist 1960s and 1970s so when she became a nurse she needed to learn to tone down her assertive behavior a bit. "Being outspoken did get me in some trouble," she said.
One doctor she worked with, in fact, complained to hospital leaders, urging that they fire her. They didn't. And later, she worked with the same doctor as a medical student and even received an award from his specialty. "As a nurse, I learned communication skills, the art of listening and the power of touch and silence," Eidsness said. "This art of being present at the bedside has carried with me as a physician."
It also led Eidsness to become one of the driving forces of LifeCircle South Dakota, a statewide coalition of institutions, organizations and people committed to improving end-of-life care. LifeCircle aims to increase awareness and provide resources for people throughout the state about end-of-life issues. The organization also promotes research and quality care at the end of life.
Eidsness also strives for a statewide impact for the internal medicine department. "Our departmental goal is to be the academic home to internal medicine in South Dakota," Eidsness said. "Our strength is the diversity, dedication and enthusiasm of the faculty unified by their commitment to excellence in education and scholarship. We have an outstanding curriculum for our medical students and an excellent internal medicine residency program."
Eidsness makes sure the educational program follows a prescription offered in the book, Values and Ethics: A Collection of Curricular Reforms for a New Generation of Physicians. The book advises that the study of internal medicine "better equip students to express empathy, cope with ambiguity and balance clinical objectivity with self-reflection."
No doubt, it helps that Eidsness is a role model for that goal. This spring, she was the faculty recipient of the medical school's 2010 Leonard Tow - Humanism in Medicine Award.