By Tech. Sgt. Paul Santikko
Minnesota National Guard Public Affairs
ST. PAUL, Minn. (Feb. 3, 2017) – On the third floor of the University of Minnesota’s main-hospital building in Minneapolis, a 94 year-old woman waits patiently in a pre-operating room with her husband close by her side. In enters “Doc” Hamlar dressed in scrubs and a white lab coat, ready to discuss the procedure she is about to undertake that will dilate her throat allowing her to better swallow again.
Sitting bedside now, Hamlar takes her hand and says with a smile, “You’re hanging in there!” “Yeah I am!” she replies.
“You’re a tough cookie,” said Hamlar.
“I AM a tough cookie,” she confidently says through a grin. She then turns and addresses the whole room “I was a war baby!”
This was not the first time Hamlar and this young-at-heart spit-fire had met. 16 years prior, cancer was discovered in her jaw-bone and neck. At the age of 78 the severity of her stage-IV cancer diagnosis was that within four-to-five years, she had a 30 percent chance of being alive.
Because of the aggressive advance the cancer was taking, the affected region had to be removed.
“No matter what the procedure is, when you’re dealing with cancer, it’s going be big,” said Hamlar.
After considerable planning to remove most of the right side of her mandible, Doc Hamlar and his team proceeded with the reconstructive surgery that involved replacing her cancerous jaw with native material taken from her leg bone. From start to finish, the entire procedure took 20-straight hours to complete, a time-frame not untypical for many of the procedures he performs.
Hamlar, by medical profession, is an otolaryngologist (ENT) and craniofacial surgeon, as well as a dental surgeon (DDS) who primarily deals with deformities found in the head and neck. When a person comes to him in need, the malady can range from a cleft lip to a case like the “Tough Cookie” and the removal and reconstruction of her cancerous jaw.
Deformities can be congenital or caused later on in life, due to circumstance or disease. Hamlar’s main concern is to make the structure of the craniofacial region whole again and does this by reconstructing -adding or removing- bone and tissue.
Picture the surface of an aluminum can with a dent or bulge in it. But unlike the can, a skull has a complex network of bones that add structure to what you see on the surface. In order to fix what is seen on the surface, Hamlar finds a way to bring in unison, the entire structure back in harmony with the rest of the face as a whole.
“I never considered myself cosmetic surgeon,” said Hamlar. “For me, it was about taking care of the big picture and taking care of the greater good.”
“If you have a head and neck deformity, it’s out there for the world to see. If it’s on your arm or body, you can cover it with clothing. So a lot of times, my patients who have craniofacial deformities, don’t want to be in public – they tend to hide, stay away and become shameful,” said Hamlar. “What I want to do is find a better way to reconstruct people so that they can be part of society again and go out and do things with their family and friends.”
A large part of what Hamlar does happens outside of the operating room. Parents want their children to be able to grow up normal. Survivors of traumatic head injuries want to see their old-self in the mirror again.
“Your heart goes out to families where kids are involved, and that just tugs at your heart,” said Hamlar. “But you know you’re the person that puts it back together – those are the hard ones.”
Hamlar uses all the resources he has at his disposal for each case to help his patients – from what he can do to in the operating room – to referring them to support groups to help with the psychological effects. It is an on-going process that can take time. Certain cases can span years to complete because of how the body heals, and through his assistance, he hopes that some-day they can feel whole again.
It’s all relative, says Hamlar. From the parent wanting their child with a cleft lip to look normal, to a person with a gross-abnormality (think of the elephant man), no one wants that for them. “Getting people back to half-way good-looking again changes their attitude, and ultimately their quality of life.”
To many, he is best known as “Doc.”
But outside of the hospitals and scrubs, he seamlessly transitions into another culture and his formal title changes to Brig. Gen. David D. Hamlar, Assistant Adjutant General – Air, Minnesota National Guard.
“I don’t necessarily like titles,” said Hamlar. “When I introduce myself, I’d rather you just call me Dave because that puts us on equal footing.”
Despite his preferences on professional titles, Hamlar has many found in a variety of circles: doctor and confidant to those under his care; leader to his peers and those he serves with; husband and father to his family; and most importantly, friend and mentor to anyone who is in need.
The multi-faceted, multi-talented career of “Doc” Hamlar didn’t just come to be in one day though. One would suppose that a doctor’s career started in the class room, but for Hamlar, his drive to always do better and consistently challenge himself with new endeavors started well before that.
David Hamlar Jr. grew up in Columbus, Ohio the middle child with two sisters and the son of a dentist. As a kid coming to age in the 50’s and 60’s, his profession of choice was to be an astronaut. This quickly transitioned into marine biology, modeled after the work of icon Jacques Cousteau, after discovering that space exploration not as readily available in his neighborhood as the YMCA pool was.
Sports and athletics however, have always been a passion of Hamlar’s and it was also one of the many common interests that he and his father, Dr. David Hamlar Sr., shared together. Hamlar Sr. was a draftee of the Los Angeles Rams, career dentist, a WWII Navy veteran and a pillar of his community. It was a path that David Jr. would soon take in choosing his own profession.
“I still say it to this day that my father is, and has always will be, my hero.” A self-described “frustrated jock,” Hamlar’s drive as an athlete has always been a defining characteristic of his.
“If I could have played sports…,” laments Hamlar. “If you want to talk about careers- There’s a career, and then there is a career. Why would you not want to do something where you play a game and get paid to do it?”
Admittedly smaller in size [that is, too small to imagine playing professional football says, Hamlar], that has never stopped him from taking on the challenge of a larger or more experienced opponent.
As a child, one of the neighborhood games he would play was much like pick-up batting practice, except the pitcher would try and hit the batter with the ball. It was the high-schoolers vs. the 5th and 6th grade kids.
“You either hit the ball, or you get hit – and you only had so many times to opt-out of getting hit by the ball or you lose,” said Hamlar. “So, you better shift your feet and hit the ball instead!”
In high school he played all seasonal sports, it wasn’t enough for him that he made the varsity basketball team. After his basketball practices he was allowed to go spar with the wrestling team during their practice but wasn’t allowed to compete because of varsity sports regulations.
“I was pretty good too, but I had committed to basketball and couldn’t do both at the same time.”
Hamlar went on to play football for Tufts University in Boston where he graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Biology. He went on to Howard University College of Dentistry (which was also his father’s alma mater) as a National Health Service Corps scholarship recipient, gaining a commission at the equivalent Naval rank of lieutenant. After graduating with his Doctorates of Dental Surgery, he worked at his father’s practice, something he had always hoped to do.
Two impactful instances happened during that time that would change his life: the most important when he met his soon-to-be wife at a conference through the NHSC, and the other when he entered into a tennis tournament that would guide his career forward.
“From the day we met, David was talking about his dreams of going back to medical school,” said Mrs. June Hamlar.
Although his mind hadn’t quite been made up of what field to enter in, that would soon change.
“Are we going play tennis or are you going keep answering this thing?” asked Hamlar to his opponent during a heated tennis match. The interruption of a new technology called a “pager” had caused one too many interruptions, and out of annoyance, Hamlar had to find out what all the fuss was about.
His opponent explained that he was a physician who practiced in treating conditions of the Ear Nose and Throat, and after somewhat knowing about it already and liking what he heard, it was there that Hamlar confirmed that he too was going to enter into the same field.
After a three-year correspondence course at the Ohio State College of Medicine, Hamlar completed his second doctorates in otolaryngology in 1989. In the same year, he commissioned as a second lieutenant with the Ohio National Guard and worked as a Health Services Administrator with the 121st Tactical Hospital at Rickenbacker Air Force Base.
He spent the next five years completing his medical education, performing medical research, and completing his general surgical internship and residency in Otolaryngology at The Ohio State University.in Columbus.
“In my training, I learned how to take everything apart, and put the pieces back together” said Hamlar. “What I didn’t learn, was how to do it in an expert fashion.”
While working with Ohio State, It was the strong guidance of his program chairman who took interest in his goals that guided him to new fellowship specializing in facial plastic and craniofacial surgery at the University of Minnesota, said Hamlar. He accepted the challenge, becoming one of two first Fellows in the U of M’s new program and moved his family to Minnesota. This new specialized training would open doors for Hamlar, not only in his craft, but in notoriety as well.
FROM THE OPERATING ROOM TO THE HOCKEY RINK
Enter the lower concourse of the Excel Energy Center, or to the hockey fan, rink side and home of the Minnesota Wild.
The San Jose Sharks are in town and every game is important this close to the playoffs. Only hours ago, Doc Hamlar was with his patient at the U of M but is now dressed in a suit and tie, joining his colleagues in the trainer’s room – which is a door away from the player’s locker room.
Here with the Minnesota Wild, Hamlar is known as “the cut guy” on the medical team where he treats the facial lacerations and broken facial bones of the NHL elite. He is one of five full-time medical professionals that are at every home game for the Wild and has been with the organization for the past ten years.
Much like how he got into the field of otolaryngology, his entry into treating athletes presented itself on the court, but this time in a pick-up basketball league at the University of Minnesota, said Hamlar. During his fellowship, it was discovered that Hamlar was a sports fanatic and was asked if he’d be interested in doing reconstructive surgeries for the Gopher Athletics programs. Hamlar’s notability in treating sports-related injuries grew and soon after was approached by the Minnesota Wild organization.
“I played pick-up hockey in high school, had never played organized hockey – Ohio doesn’t have hockey, believe me on that,” said Hamlar. “So I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. All I knew was that it was a lot like being a flight surgeon (in reference to the military). You’re taking care of a bunch of high-achieving folks and your job is to just keep them out there.”
Chatting with the medical team in the trainer’s room, the door opens and star defensemen Ryan Suter pokes his head in to ask a quick question before going out on the ice. Hamlar provides an answer and is returned with a fist-bump and a smile, “thanks Doc.”
Players come from all over the world and they bring their families, said Hamlar. “You become their Doc and you become their families’ Doc too.”
“When someone asks me for a character reference I always say he is the only one I would ever let perform surgery on my son – and he has done it twice,” says, Dr. Dan Peterson, team physician and assistant medical director for the Minnesota Wild. “Even when my son was only a 1-year old and you’re picking that [surgery] for your kid – I called him [Hamlar] and said, ‘You’re the only one I want to do this.'”
Hockey players aren’t the only professional athletes he treats as he is also on a medical advisory board for the Minnesota Timberwolves and Vikings. Due to the nature of the game and the injuries it produces, he is more of an on-call doctor in those instances.
TECHNOLOGY CHANGES EVERYTHING
The cutting edge of technology is something that Hamlar keeps a finger on the pulse of, but certainly does not adopt into early on for his own patients, said Hamlar. “What’s fascinating is how technology changes everything.”
For instance in the case of the “Tough Cookie,” 16 years ago, the use of 3-dimensionally mapping procedures ahead of time for surgeons to virtually build their “sculptures” didn’t exist, said Hamlar. I was using sterile Popsicle sticks to mock-up my surgeries in real time. The same surgery today has been cut down to about 6 hours, as opposed to the 16-20 hours it took before we had these tools.
One of the interesting things I am working on with the Dept. of Defense is using CT scans and 3-Dimensionally printing out the needed parts to make people whole again, said Hamlar. If you’re on the battlefield and you lose an ear or nose, in the future we hope to make that recovery process that much faster.
A challenge I face is time, said Hamlar. When someone has an abnormality on their face and you are working with nerves and tissue to put everything back together, that takes time to heal before you can move on to the next step.
Sitting back in his office at the University Hospital, Hamlar pulls out an old card board box filled with skulls – plastic models of past procedures he has worked on. This is where one can truly grasp the complexity of what Hamlar describes in how he approaches certain procedures.
Before, everything was projector slides of pictures and X-rays, says Hamlar as he opens several file cabinet drawers full of examples. And even though most of the work he does is now seen digitally, the tangible concept of holding a life-sized example cannot be matched in providing clarity.
One example has metal plates screwed into the jaw to regain proper functionality again, another has a bulge protruding from the forehead that almost overtakes the eyesight. The reality of someone’s abnormality is quite prevalent in the skulls he presents, and even more so is the thought that goes out to the individual who had to live like that; ¬but Hamlar excitedly explains how he found a way to fix them, allowing them to be whole again.
A PASSION FOR SERVICE
Although the childhood dream of seeing earth from the moon or every fish under the sea didn’t quite pan out like he had initially planned, a different passion in helping others has lead him down a life-long adventure of its own kind for Hamlar. Through his service in the military, to helping those in need, Hamlar has served in a great deal of capacities to help others have the best possible outcome in their lives.
Though deploying and supporting our troops over the past twelve years has paused his world-wide humanitarian mission work, helping people with the skill-set he has been given has been paramount in his life. He would be the first to admit that it would not be possible without the blessing and encouragement from his family.
Hamlar reflects back to his father and the role he served not only for his family but the community. “Doc” has always known the importance of providing a strong role model and work for the African-American community. Through community organizations such as the NAACP, University of Minnesota Medical School admissions and recruiting, Minnesota National Guard Diversity and Inclusion efforts, or one-on-one mentoring in Minnesota high schools he has been able to fulfill the obligation.
“How many people do you know that are a dentist, a doctor, done a fellowship in plastic surgery, and a brigadier general as well – on top of that, be the nicest guy?” asked Peterson. “He’s always the first person to help. He leads through his actions and that’s never asking anybody to do what he’s not going to be the first guy to do.”
Compassion in any sense of the word, comes naturally to Hamlar, a trait that parallels his success in his leadership roles. For someone who is pulled in multiple high-pressure roles, he still stops for anyone who needs him and ensures they are taken care of before moving on.
Hamlar explains that having passion for what he does is what got him to where he is in life. “My father said, ‘it doesn’t matter what you do, if you’re going to be a garbage collector, be passionate about it and do it the best you can and that will hone success.”‘
The other part of his formula for success is resiliency, and in a joking manner, says that it helps if you are kind of good at it too. “You have to allow yourself to fail and learn from those mistakes.”
No matter what career choice Hamlar would have chosen, his passion would have been the same: “Taking care of people – that’s it. What else are we here for?