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Steve Steinmetz
Steve Steinmetz

Healing process

From personal heartbreak
comes a will to endure

By Kate Hartsel

As a farmer, Steve Steinmetz was used to long hours and demanding work — surprisingly good preparation for his second career as a doctor.

At age 31, Steinmetz began an unusual journey, moving from the milking barn to UW-Eau Claire and then to the UW School of Medicine in Madison.

The journey would have been daunting in the best of circumstances, but Steinmetz also endured the death of a child from cancer along the way. Despite his devastating loss, he persevered and is now completing his residency with the UW Health Eau Claire Family Medicine Clinic in Eau Claire.

Farming and health care are both professions very familiar to Steinmetz. His parents, Frank and Charlene Steinmetz, were farmers, and of his five siblings, two are doctors, two are nurses and one is a teacher.

Growing up in Chippewa Falls, Steinmetz was most interested in farm life, spending long hours in the barns and on tractors. He took over the family farm when he graduated from high school in 1982. And at age 20, he married his high school sweetheart, Katie. Together they had three children, Benjamin, Joshua and Michael.

Steinmetz did well as a farmer, expanding the family operation. But despite his success, he began to have doubts about continuing to farm.

“My boys were growing up, and I didn’t think any of them were going to go into farming,” Steinmetz said. “I started to think about my career possibilities, and I decided to attend UW-Eau Claire, taking just one class in the summer of 1995. My thoughts were to try and become a physician’s assistant or a nurse.”

The class went well, so that fall Steinmetz enrolled in 12 credits, juggling studying with farming.

But in January 1996, Steinmetz’s world was turned upside down. His youngest son, 3-year-old Michael, was diagnosed with cancer. He had a cancer of the kidneys called Wilms’ tumor, which has a high cure rate. Unfortunately, Michael had Stage IV diffuse anaplastic Wilms’ tumor with a cure rate of only 16.7 percent.

“We knew right away we were behind the eight ball,” Steinmetz said.

During the next year, Steinmetz and his family helped Michael through seven months of chemotherapy, two lung surgeries, an autologous bone marrow transplant and several near fatal responses to the treatments. A bright spot came in January 1997 when Michael was found to be in remission. But in mid-March, the cancer returned. Michael died April 30, 1997.

“Ironically, even though it was the worst thing that will ever happen to us, we were able to manage Mikey’s pain and spend a lot of wonderful time with him,” Steinmetz said. “The health care and home hospice he received were wonderful and the support of family and friends amazing. Even at the end, with the help of a morphine pump in his little fanny pack, Mikey was able to play every day. He just got more and more tired.”

When Michael died, his immediate and extended families were with him, each getting a chance to hold him and say goodbye.

“After Mikey’s passing, thoughts about my career goal changed. I started thinking about the possibility of becoming an M.D.,” Steinmetz said, noting it was a response in part to the excellent care Michael received from the doctors and nurses of the Children’s Hospital in St. Paul.

Steinmetz took more classes, but his life continued to be a struggle. He and his wife divorced about a year after Michael’s death.

Focusing on his studies in biochemistry/molecular biology, Steinmetz began taking classes all year, including the summer and winterim sessions.

While it was challenging to come back to school in his 30s, Steinmetz said UW-Eau Claire professors and the Educational Opportunity Center made it possible.

“I knew all my professors, and they were just phenomenal,” Steinmetz said. “They did everything they could to help me. And if it wasn’t for the EOC, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

In 2001, with his bachelor’s degree in hand and his family encouraging him, Steinmetz decided to attempt medical school. He was accepted into the UW medical program. In a matter of weeks, he married his second wife, Judy, sold his cows and farm equipment, started to build a house and moved to Madison with Judy and his stepdaughter, Katie.

The move and the changes in his personal life were daunting, but Steinmetz worked hard and completed his medical degree, deciding on family practice as his specialty.

“It seemed like a natural choice then to move back to Eau Claire to do the family practice residency program here,” Steinmetz said. “It’s a great program and it’s nice to be back around my sons and family members.”

Now 42, Steinmetz admits returning to school later in life, especially to study medicine, has challenged his stamina. But he notes that being more mature and experienced has given him an edge over some of his colleagues.

“I wish I was a little younger,” Steinmetz said. “I don’t have as much energy as I used to and my memory is not quite as good, but being more mature has helped me understand people a little better.”

Given his life experiences, Steinmetz said he also feels he is better able to understand the physical and emotional pain that occurs with the death of a loved one, which will help him to better understand his patients’ pain and suffering.

Though he took a long road with some very big bumps in it, Steinmetz said he is glad he took the route he did.

“I had many setbacks during my college education, at which point I could have given up, but I kept trudging along,” Steinmetz said. “My brother once said to me, ‘you just put your mind to it and do it.’ It’s a very simple statement but also very true.”

Kate Hartsel is a writer for the UW-Eau Claire News Bureau.

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