Something remarkable happened early on in Dr. Steve Smedshammer’s pediatric rotation in the Twin Cities when he met with a woman and her autistic teenage son and began asking questions.
“I asked, ‘before I even talk to your son, what are his triggers? Can he be touched? Can I do a physical exam? If he allows me to listen to his heart and lungs, will the cold metal be a trigger?’” Smedshammer says.
He continued asking whether the boy was bothered by loud sounds and if he should turn the lights down in the exam room.
“She started crying,” Smedshammer says. “She said in all of the years of doctoring for him, no one ever asked that.”
Even early in his career, Smedshammer seems to grasp that bedside manner is as important as medical knowledge. Caring for others seems like something he was born and destined to do. But his road to residency was far from smooth and straight. It was full of detours, a few potholes and even a real life “Wheel of Fortune.” But the tale of his journey should be required reading for any student feeling pressured to know exactly where their education and career path is headed.
A great start, a “rebellious” turn
Smedshammer was born and raised just north of Fargo to a mom with a master’s degree in nursing and a Master Sergeant dad. He had two older half-siblings and one younger sister.
“I had a phenomenal childhood,” Smedshammer recalls. “My parents were remarkable people.”
At Fargo’s Shanley High School, he says he was interested in technology and figured after graduation in 2002, he’d pursue a degree in computer science at North Dakota State University. That summer he got into the subculture of music.
“I’m a kid of the '80s. I was raised on Nirvana, Soundgarden, those kinds of ‘90s grunge bands,” he says. “I was 18, it was my first taste of freedom. I got a tattoo and I was all rebellious.”
He even took on apprenticeship doing piercings at a tattoo shop in Fargo. Once school started, he found his entry-level college computer classes less than challenging. He says he became “disenchanted” after about a month and decided to quit school. When he told his parents they said ‘okay’ but he was 18 and he should move out of the house.
“Without any argument or fanfare I packed my bags and moved out without a game plan as to what I was going to do,” he says.
He says he wasn’t really scared about the uncertainty because he’s always had confidence in himself to figure things out.
The ‘couch circuit’
For the next year and a half he lived on tips from his unpaid apprenticeship and relied upon the generosity of friends who, when he wasn’t sleeping in his car, let him sleep on their couch.
“I like to call it ‘the couch circuit,’” he says.
He says when he went home at the holidays with ever-increasing tattoos and piercings, his parents didn’t say much.
“As supportive as they were, it wasn’t really their jam,” Smedshammer says.
But as the year-and-a-half went on Smedshammer says he was starting to build a strong clientele.
“I love people. I’m very outgoing and very social. I would talk to a wrong number for an hour if I had the opportunity,” he says. “So people were starting to come back for repeat services.”
At that same time, Smedshammer put his love of music to work, forming a band with some friends.
“Metal, screaming, loud stuff. We had a wonderful, affectionate name, ‘Necktie Suicide.’ The kind of thing where you cringe when your grandma asks,” he says with a big laugh.
They put out two albums and toured the Midwest, all while Smedshammer continued his piercing work. But it was an interaction he had with a woman who came in for a nose piercing one day that would change the course of his life. The woman, impressed by Smedshammer’s people skills during the piercing, asked if he ever considered becoming a doctor because he already had an “impeccable” bedside manner.
“I kind of laughed and said, ‘no, I’m pretty happy with what I’m doing.’ She’s like ‘well, you gotta think about what you’re going to do when you grow up.’ I was in my mid-20s at this point so I was a little burnt by that,” he says.
Back to class
Nonetheless, he says, that conversation struck a nerve and that next weekend he found himself applying to go back and get his undergraduate degree at the University of Mary in Bismarck. He says he felt like becoming a doctor was a little outside his scope, but he thought nursing would be an option. But that changed after a lecture one day in a nursing class.
“The lecturer was putting up images of people of various walks of life and having us shout out what our stereotypes or gut reactions to the people were,” he says. “She said something like, ‘Steve, you’re going to love this one.’ It was a photo of some guy with a huge septum ring and ears stretched like mine were. She asked what the incorrect perceptions were and they said things like ‘dirty.’ I was like ‘hey, I’m right here. I’m kind of offended.’”
Smedshammer, who at his peak had about 23 piercings and close to 100 tattoos, said he immediately left nursing for pre-med where he felt he might be in more of a position to change perceptions.
“I have a ton of respect for the nursing world, but something about that moment put a bad taste in my mouth,” he says. “I’m the one that always fought for the marginalized. I met people from all walks of life, especially when I was with the band. They were down on their luck and I always felt like you shouldn’t judge anyone. I felt like I needed to do something to curb this. Help make more of a systemic change in perceptions.”
In other words, if patients walked in and saw a doctor with tattoos and piercings it could have a greater impact to affect change.
“So why not aim for the fences and go for doctor. And it worked I guess,” he says.
By 2010 he was seeing his now wife, Christine who was living in Fargo. He transferred to Concordia College in Moorhead, where he says as a ‘scrawny, bearded, tattooed guy” he never felt judged.
“I felt accepted. It’s a very accepting, progressive kind of environment,” he says.
And the acceptance of his alternative look extended once he graduated and attended medical school at the University of North Dakota.
“I was the oldest person (32) in my class. On the flip side we had a girl in our class who was 19 - a homeschooled prodigy. But we all respected each other and took care of each other,” he says.
By this point, Smedshammer was also taking care of a family. He had married his “amazing and supportive” wife Christine and they had one daughter, Sloane, who is now 6. (Son Saint, 4 and daughter Stevie, 1 ½, came along a little later).
Raising a family while going to school can be a costly affair, but Smedshammer got help from an unexpected place, the “Wheel of Fortune” game show where he was chosen to be a contestant.
“The Wheelmobile was in Fargo and my wife said, ‘you watch the show as a kid and you’re awesome. You should go do it,” he says.
He competed against hundreds of others in town to get a chance to be on the show where he eventually won, $33,150 - money that helped the Smedshammers buy a house.
The road to residency
After a series of interviews and applications for residency programs which Christine describes as “The Hunger Games meets Tinder,” Smedshammer was accepted in the University of Minnesota pediatrics program, with the eventual goal to be a pediatric oncologist. He’s currently working at Children’s Minnesota in St. Paul.
He says medicine, for him, is the perfect marriage of the people skills his dad instilled in him with the compassion his mom brought to the table. His father died a few years ago, but he says his mom is proud of where he is now.
He’s come a long way since sleeping on people’s couches and driving around in “a stinky van with a bunch of smelly guys playing music.”
Not only is Smedshammer pursuing a medical career, he’s also using his less than traditional career path to mentor undergraduates and medical students about their own goals - teaching them how to evaluate themselves and learn how to trust their own instincts.
And what about Smedshammer’s own children? What would he tell them if they chose a less than traditional career path like his?
Like a lot of dads, he says he just wants his kids to be happy.
“If it makes you happy, that’s what I want,” he says. “I don’t want somebody toiling away at a job that they hate because they felt that was the track they’re supposed to do. I don’t want regrets. And I’d encourage people to look at life the same way.”