By Julie Blum
Columbus Telegram, Neb.
An experience growing up on the family farm nearly turned Nila Novotny off to the medical field entirely.
The Lyons native thought about becoming a nurse. Her middle name, Katherine, was given to her after an aunt who was in that profession. Novotny wanted to follow in Aunt Katherine’s footsteps. That was true until her dad accidentally had his arm sliced open with a corn knife.
One look at her dad getting stitches was enough to make Novotny forget about becoming a nurse.
Entering a medical profession wasn’t at the forefront of her mind after graduating high school. She thought about a lot of different majors while attending the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. But one day while walking along campus, the idea of becoming a doctor popped up.
The change of heart came, she believes, because she was young and in a new environment.
Novotny attended the University of Nebraska Medical Center with initial plans of studying to be a family doctor. That changed early on to becoming a surgeon after doing rotations in medical school.
After UNMC, she completed her residency at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
Pursuing a surgical career was a big step for the small-town girl. She was the only female at Mayo during her five-year residency. In general, Novotny said, surgical specialties don’t include as many women as men. So, she was somewhat of a lone wolf in that respect when she chose otolaryngology (ear, nose and throat) as her specialty.
Being the sole female there pushed Novotny to achieve.
“Being the only woman in your residency, you really have to hold your own with the men. There were no female role models,” she said.
Novotny keeps that in mind even today. She thinks of herself as sort of a trailblazer and wants to be an example to girls and young women to pursue whatever they set their minds to. Some women have even told her they went into medicine because of her.
“That’s really gratifying. You never know what little girl might say, ‘I want to do that,’ because they were your patient,” the 60-year-old said.
She has also taken that sense of being a role model outside the medical realm by forming and leading the Fantastic 4-H’ers.
As a farm kid herself, Novotny wanted her own children and other youths to learn the values of agriculture and other life skills that are taught in 4-H, so she started the club 23 years ago. It began with just six members and has grown to 30.
For her work with the organization, she was given the 4-H Family of the Year award in 2001. She was also been recognized in 2012 as the Ag Woman of the Year.
After completing her residency, Novotny moved with her husband, John, to Columbus in 1987 and opened her own practice. John, who has a degree in economics, serves as the office manager. For the first seven years here, Novotny was the only female surgeon in town.
Novotny said the couple chose to settle in Columbus because there were opportunities for an otolaryngologist in the area and her sister lives in town. She wanted her three children to grow up around family.
Novotny works at her clinic four days a week, but is always on call. Throughout the years, she hasn’t been limited to treating patients locally.
Since 1999, she has been going on medical mission trips to help people in underprivileged areas. Her first journey was to Ecuador. She said it was a life-changing experience. Novotny waited several years until her children were grown to go on other trips to Jamaica, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Kenya and Haiti. The next mission trip will be to Nepal this spring.
She and John founded the Columbus Medical Mission Team that invites area physicians and nurses to travel to such countries to treat people who have a variety of medical needs, from cleft lips to tumor removal. Some of those needs have gone untreated for years.
Mission trips were always an interest for Novotny. She sees it as a way of giving back.
“I grew up in a wonderful, loving home with loving parents who valued education and took care of their children. You see people in some of these countries, they didn’t do anything to deserve what they got. Their parents died from AIDS. They live on dirt floors with no running water and no chance of an education,” she said.
Novotny said she was lucky. By God’s grace she was born here.
The countries she has gone to don’t have a shortage of needs. She said she does surgery continuously while visiting those countries. The line for people wanting help often goes out the door and down the street. Even on the last day of a two-week trip, there are still people waiting.
Novotny has hundreds of photos of patients from those countries, some they were able to help and others who were too far gone to assist. In Haiti, there was a person who had a neck mass the size of an eggplant. Another had a giant jaw tumor. A woman in Kenya came to see the doctors for a huge face tumor. She was also HIV positive and had tuberculosis. There was nothing the medical team could do for her. A man with a broken back had to have his legs amputated.
Oftentimes, the medical team leaves behind some medical equipment for doctors in those countries to use. Novotny said a goal is to work with local doctors and train them how to do surgeries.
“To put yourself out of business is what you want to do. You want them to be self-sustaining,” she said.
Novotny has been on seven mission trips. Because she doesn’t have a partner at her office, she can’t go on medical missions that last more than a couple of weeks. In the future, she may dedicate a month or two to a trip.
The medical missions have had an impact on her personally. She feels like she is making a difference.
“It’s not to say I haven’t done good here, but if I wasn’t here, they could just drive to Fremont or they could drive to Omaha (for treatment). Over there, there is nobody to go to at all. It is just a huge disparity,” she said.
Novotny said she grew up as a naive farm girl in a community without diversity. Being part of the medical mission trips have helped broaden her view and fulfill her desire to help others here and abroad.
“I always wanted to see the world. You only live once,” she said.