Up Close | UCSF Fresno Thanks Veterans for Service to our Country

Up Close | UCSF Fresno Thanks Veterans for Service to our Country

We are honored to have physicians on our team who are veterans of the Armed Services. Below is an interview (edited for brevity) with one of our faculty physicians, Sara Higginson, MD, FACS, who is a UCSF Fresno trauma surgeon and director of burns. Dr. Higginson served from 1998-2003 in the U.S. Navy as a helicopter pilot.

What was most meaningful to you about your service in the U.S. Navy?

“I think it comes down to service. I think people fail to realize freedom is not free. And it takes all of us working together to support and create a quality life for all of us. So, I think being of service, the opportunity to protect those who cannot protect themselves.

I don’t think there’s a greater aircraft than a helicopter. I don’t think there’s a greater calling than flying. It’s the most amazing experience. And then being a Naval aviator, flying in darkness so complete that light doesn’t exist and finding a ship that is pitching and rolling and is the size of a dime in the middle of the darkness – and landing on it – is the greatest accomplish that I have achieved.”

Are there parallels between working as a trauma surgeon and burn director today, and the years you served as a U.S. Navy helicopter pilot?

“Everybody who joined the Navy, we were one giant team with a unified vision and this force for good. On the burn team, we are one large team with a unified vision to have the best outcomes for our patients.

Like the squadron I went to sea with in the Navy, UCSF Fresno is a family. We work hard, we play hard. And we always put the patient first.

Everyone sees the pilot, but the helicopter doesn’t go without the air crew. When a helicopter is up and running and working there’s like 20 people who made it happen. And so, similarly, to get a patient with a large devastating traumatic injury, from injured to healthy and going home, there are hundreds of people involved who make that happen.

And I can’t imagine choosing to do anything that doesn’t involve that teamwork, where we are all together striving for one goal. The military, the mission is first. And here, in medicine in general, and especially at UCSF Fresno, the patient is first – and we all come together doing our small part to achieve the greater goal of the best outcomes that we can and the healthiest patients that we can deliver.”

What was your path to becoming a Navy helicopter pilot?

“I was a high school science teacher, and somewhere around 1998, I made a list of all the things I wanted to do before I died. And it was ridiculous stuff like skydiving, bungee jumping – Naval officer was on the list, pilot, doctor. I was approaching the age when I would be too old to join the Navy.  I didn’t know what I wanted to do in the Navy, I just knew I wanted to be a Naval officer, so I called the recruiter and the person who answered was a pilot and he said, ‘have you ever thought about flying?’  I met all the requirements and off to flight school I went.

(And I have done everything on that list, except bungee jumping; and I think I get a pass on that. Because who in their right mind would jump off a bridge tied to something?)”

What was your path from Navy helicopter pilot to UCSF Fresno trauma surgeon and burn director?

“As I left the Navy, I started flying EMS (Emergency Medical Services) for MedFlight of Ohio. We would land anywhere, and everywhere, corn fields, sides of roads. We would risk our lives to save those patients – and the most exciting part was being in the trauma bay – I wanted to stay and see what happens. Seeing the trauma surgeon come in, almost with a cape billowing behind him … and you could feel the energy in the room shift when this person arrived. Everything was going to be fine because the trauma surgeon was there. And I can remember thinking, ‘I want to be that guy.’

I applied to Ohio State post-doctoral program. Graduating from there, all I could see was trauma … and a trauma and cardiothoracic surgeon at Ohio State said to me, ‘you want to be a trauma surgeon,’ UCSF Fresno is the place where trauma surgeons are made. I came out here for an interview and chose this place. And actually, they chose me too.  I matched here.”

How did you come to specialize in burn surgery at UCSF Fresno?

When I went to medical school, I wanted to be a trauma surgeon. When I got to Fresno and I did burn as an intern, I remember after that experience I didn’t have a clear vision of where I was going, but I knew it wasn’t going to be burn. It was scary, hot, awful. The patients seemed on the edge of death, and it was the scariest thing and the most intense thing I had ever done. And then circling back as a senior resident and not being so clueless … I saw how all the parts fit together, and the joy of watching a patient walk out of here after being close to death. I can’t imagine doing anything else.

The nurses on the burn unit and everybody on the burn unit – housekeeping to the clerical staff – everybody works toward the patient getting better. I wanted to be on this team.

And then the beauty of the surgeries and what you can accomplish, the arts and crafts of it. There’s no right way to do it when you’re doing burn. It’s very much what that specific patient needs. It’s a fluid dance trying to figure out what they need. There’s an artistic aspect to burn surgery that speaks to me.”