Life is a gift

Mike Barnes

APP Spotlight: Mike Barnes, Physician Assistant, Cardiothoracic Surgery, University Hospital

Tell us about yourself.

I’ve been a physician assistant for 15 years and spent my first 12 years in pediatric and adult congenital heart surgery. But I didn’t start my working career in medicine. My undergraduate Bachelor of Arts degree is in political science from the University of Michigan. I was a commercial real estate broker for seven years in Michigan, then became a real estate consultant in the San Francisco area. We later moved to Wisconsin when my wife, Julie, had a job change. I went to Marquette University and earned my Master of Physician Assistant Studies. I also received an emergency medical technician (EMT) and CNA certification. As part of my PA clinical, I joined the cardiovascular surgery team at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. During the eight weeks I spent there, I learned so much and became more passionate about heart surgery. At the end of the rotation, they offered me a position and I did all of my training on the job.

During that time, my second child was born early at 32 weeks, and he needed the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). It was a tough time, but I learned fast how to juggle a lot under pressure. I worked over 100 hours a week for the summer. It was intense. In my second week being employed, I assisted with an emergency neonatal valve repair. I worked at Children’s for six years and developed more skills. I then worked at Children’s Hospital of Michigan, moving to help my family when my aunt had lung cancer. Shortly after she passed, my late mentor and friend, Dr. Jim Tweddell, asked me to come back to Milwaukee. In my “free time,” I learned to fly an airplane and earned my multi-engine commercial pilot’s license. I worked in Milwaukee for another three years and then, when Jim was offered a job at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and Medical Center, I joined him there. I wanted a shorter commute and flew myself back and forth to and from home.

How did you come to UW Health?

I missed my wife and boys and many of their activities while commuting to Cincinnati. I reached out to the UW Health team when a position in cardiothoracic surgery became available. They offered me a position at University Hospital and trained me in cardiac surgery. I’ve been a physician assistant working in adult cardiothoracic surgery for three years now. Because of my experience in pediatric heart surgery, I also offer support and assistance at American Family Children’s Hospital. Recently, I restarted training in organ (heart/lung) procurement. I’m excited about this part of my medical journey and the opportunity to work in this important specialty.

Tell us about your family.

Julie and I live in Pewaukee with our two sons, Lucas, 17, and Seth, 15. We live in Pewaukee. Baseball and hockey keep us very busy, and we love it. We travel out of state most weekends throughout the year.

inspires you about your profession?

I hope to make people’s lives a little better by improving their longevity and quality of life. I feel I’ve been given a gift—I don’t think of what I do as a job. It’s not an easy career. You must be 100 percent available all the time. You have to make sacrifices but everything balances out.

Do you have a memorable experience in your career that has stayed with you?

Early in my career while working as a CNA at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, I met my future mentors, Michael Madrzak, PA-C, and Jim Tweddell, MD. I was invited to watch them perform a Norwood procedure, where the surgeon and team build a new, larger aorta and modify the blood flow of the body. It was a 7-day old baby. The surgery took 8 hours. Watching them, I knew I wanted to be a physician assistant specializing in cardiac surgery. Every single movement during the procedure was so delicate. The heart is the size of a walnut. I was in awe. It was complex and like a dance. They spoke very few words but knew precisely how to work together.

What have your patients taught you about yourself?

I have learned humility, patience and to treat every day as a gift. I remind myself to be appreciative of what I have and where I am today. It’s easy to complain about a bill not getting paid on time or an easy household task not being met. Living in the moment and being grateful is something I work hard to do every day.

In a few words, how would you describe your coworkers and team at UW Health?

Selfless is the first word that comes to mind. Everybody is accommodating and generous. We all understand life happens and we all need to be flexible with one another. There isn’t any drama with the four other physician assistants I work with. They are all talented and experienced, and are in this profession because they share a passion for helping people who can’t help themselves.

Outside of work, what did you accomplish this year that makes you proud?

My wife was let go from her job and career of 25 years in retail when COVID-19 hit our nation hard in March 2020. She then started her own dog daycare, grooming and boarding service and is now an entrepreneur. The last two years have been busy, and helping her with her business has occupied my time outside of work. I’m proud of her work and enjoy helping the business be more successful. I am also proud of raising two boys who I believe are good citizens and will contribute when their time comes.