PHYSICIAN SPOTLIGHT: Neil A. Fenske, MD Chairman, Department of Dermatology & Cutaneous Surgery, USFCOM, Tampa
Some might think that growing up “dirt poor” on a farm in Blue Earth, Minn. would be a liability. But Neil Fenske treasures it as a character-building experience that allows him to appreciate how far he has come in life.
“I’m a guy who came up the hard way,” said Fenske, chairman of the Department of Dermatology & Cutaneous Surgery at the University of South Florida College of Medicine in Tampa. “I had to carve, scratch, dig and cajole. That’s not a complaint. It has made me stronger, Fenske said.
How poor was his family? Fenske, the eldest of five children, wore only used clothes and one winter his only jacket was a girl’s. “I had to wear it to school because that was all (his parents) could afford for $1.50,” he remembered.
Fenske was driving a tractor and plowing fields at 10 years of age. His parents eventually purchased a small grocery store in nearby Winnebago, where he and his siblings worked at night and weekends. Fenske credits the long hours and hard work to forging his work ethic. “It was working behind the cash register where I learned to interact and communicate will people of all ages and personalities, which has served me well as a physician,” he said.
The family’s diet was low-budget and high-cholesterol. “SPAM® was a staple … and hot dogs and hamburgers were served on thin white bread because buns were ‘too expensive,’” he said, adding that an experience with a hamburger at age 12 was a turning point in his young life. “A friend’s mom took him and me for my first restaurant experience – a hamburger on a bun, French fries and a Coke. What a treat! It was at that point that I decided I was not going to be poor when I grew up. I committed myself to academic and athletic excellence throughout my high school years,” Fenske recalled.
He earned a basketball scholarship to Gustavus Adolphus College, becoming the first Fenske to attend college. He already knew he wanted to study medicine because of his teenage admiration for two family physicians. After college he enrolled in medical school at St. Louis University, where he took an elective course in dermatology and “fell in love with it,” Fenske said. He completed his internship at St. Mary’s Hospital in Duluth, and residency at the University of Wisconsin, where he met and married his wife Robyn, and soon realized “an academic career was my calling,” he said. Fenske was recruited to USF to start a residency training program in dermatology and he has been there since 1977.
But in many ways that is just the beginning of a career in which he has influenced the lives of countless patients, students and the institution he has served for 34 years. Along the way Fenske has left his mark in many ways, including being president of seven dermatologic organizations and being named the 1999 practitioner of the year by the Florida Society of Dermatology. In addition, he was chosen by his peers in the Castle Connolly Medical Ltd., directory as one of America’s top cancer doctors for five of the past seven years.
But the professional accomplishments that Fenske treasures most are his relationships with students and patients.
“I have had the privilege to educate and mentor many bright young men and women, many of whom practice in the greater Tampa Bay area,” he said. “All our grads are reputable and very highly sought-after. (Tampa-area) docs scoop up my residents all the time. I’m proud of all of them.”
Fenske said he still spends about 50 to 60 percent of his time seeing patients, which is unusual for a department chair, and that he still thrives on that interaction. “I have not lost my zeal,” he said. “I have as much enthusiasm today as when I started here 35 years ago. … I’m very motivated and high-energy.”
Others confirm Fenske’s self-evaluation. Stephen Klasko, MD, MBA, is senior vice president of USF Health and dean of the College of Medicine. “He is very well thought of by me and others,” Klasko said, pointing out his work with Fenske to transform the Dermatology Division into a full-fledged department. Klasko also noted that Fenske was instrumental in securing the endowment of the Dermatology Department Chair. It was Fenske’s relationship with a patient that made it possible.
Tampa resident Chris Sullivan is co-founder and CEO of Outback Steakhouse, and a patient of Fenske’s for about 15 years. “I’ve dealt with a lot of skin cancer issues personally and in my family. Over time I observed how he was teaching young doctors and how innovative he was in his practice and teaching,” said Sullivan. “They did not have a dermatology chair at USF and I knew he had done a fantastic job of building that department. The idea of endowing that chair became available to me and I thought it was the right thing to do because Neil had earned that opportunity. Personally, he has impacted me very positively and I like the way he goes about his business. He’s an outstanding educator and an outstanding doctor,” Sullivan said.
Fenske said that when he and Klasko met with Sullivan to discuss a fundraising effort, Sullivan volunteered not only to endow the chair for $2 million, but he insisted on putting it in Fenske’s name. “I was caught off guard” by Sullivan’s generosity,” Fenske said. “I literally had tears welling in my eyes. Most people (who make a donation of that size) would want their name on the chair.”
But Sullivan saw it differently. “Neil’s the one who did all the work. It should be named after him,” he said.
And, Fenske said, his work is nowhere near done. Several area dermatologists and philanthropists have contributed, and one of his goals before retirement is to endow the entire Dermatology Department, which will require raising several million dollars. “It would be a great legacy for this great university,” he said.
But that doesn’t mean Fenske is eyeing retirement. “I still love going to work on Monday mornings. … Other than my grandkids and my immediate family, my work is my life and it’s a labor of love. God willing, and my health holds up, I’m here several more years,” he said.
Fenske has three children and four grandchildren and he savors the time he and Robyn spend together with them, especially during autumn at “our mountain house in the Smokies,” he said.
Reflecting on his humble beginnings, Fenske takes heart in the fact that “in America, you can still overcome it. … You’ll have to work harder than the average bear,” he said, but adhering to a simple set of principles has served him well: “Always work hard, do your best, and always do what’s right.”