A third-generation UNMC-educated Dr. Heiser paid tribute Monday to his father, who has continued to practice medicine despite a paralyzing oceanfront injury.
“My dad is a person with tremendous enthusiasm for anything he chooses to undertake,” said Dr. Nick Heiser of Omaha. “Family and faith are always at the center of his life, but close behind has always been his love of physical fitness.”
The younger Heiser spoke at the rededication of the Thomas M. Heiser, M.D. Strength and Fitness Facility at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. It was first named for him 20 years ago. Monday’s event was part of the grand opening of UNMC’s expanded and renovated Center for Healthy Living, a two-year, $6 million project benefiting students, staffers and other employees.
Dr. Tom Heiser, a Lincoln orthopedic specialist and sports medicine doctor, became known as “Touchdown Tommy” growing up in Columbus, Nebraska, and played wingback for the Huskers in the 1970s. On a 1990 family vacation in Hawaii, a huge wave slammed him to the sand below, causing a spinal-cord injury.
A man pulled him out of the surf unconscious and performed CPR until rescuers arrived. Heiser underwent surgeries and extensive rehabilitation.
He no longer could perform surgery himself, but he regained enough movement in his right arm and wrist to operate his motorized wheelchair. Today, he still diagnoses and treats patients, including Husker athletes.
Nick Heiser, an anesthesiologist and UNMC faculty member, said his earliest memories are of his dad arriving home from work and immediately becoming active with his two boys. The family also took bike rides and long hikes.
Nick was 8 and his brother, Mark, was 6 when their father was injured.
In the presence Monday of about 100 people, including his parents, Tom and Nancy, Nick Heiser said his dad has been his lifelong role model for physical fitness.
As a medical student, Nick said, he was inspired every time he saw his father’s photo and name in the strength and fitness facility. He also would recall all that his father endured.
“From the moment his lungs filled up with saltwater on the beach and through his long battle in ICUs,” Nick said, “he needed every ounce of his body’s capacity. He had spent his life preparing for that battle. Had he not lived such an active life, he simply wouldn’t have gotten through it.”
Dr. Jeffrey P. Gold, the university chancellor, said the Heisers are a remarkable UNMC family. Nick graduated from UNMC in 2008, Tom in 1979 and the late Dr. Ervin Heiser in 1943. He was a longtime surgeon in Columbus.
Gold thanked the expansion-renovation project’s lead donors, Omaha philanthropists Bill and Ruth Scott. The work includes a 6,525-square-foot addition and the renovation of 11,845 square feet on two floors, just east of 40th and Jones Streets.
A state-of-the-art Center for Healthy Living, Gold said, is more than a nice perk for medical students and staffers.
Burnout, pressure and depression, he said, are an increasing challenge in the health profession, with about 400 physicians committing suicide annually in the United States.
Jayme Nekuda, associate director of human resources at UNMC, said taking time to exercise “is not taking time away from your productivity — it adds to it.”
Dr. Nick Heiser agreed that medical school can be very stressful and cause self-doubts. He expressed hope that the renovated building and expanded fitness facility named for his father would inspire generations to come, as it did for himself.
“He is someone,” Nick said, “who really, truly appreciates and loves seeing people get out, being active and just enjoying life.”