Supported by Soulmates

Four Medical School Friends Share Lifelong Connection, as Career Paths Diverge
October 23, 2023
VOL 25 NO 3

When four members of the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health (SMPH) Class of 2010 — Stephen Almasi, MD ’10 (PG ’13); Joseph Hansen, MD ’10; Vincent Laurence, MD ’10; and Rebecca Cramer, MD ’10, MPH — began their medical school journeys, they had amassed years of unique life experiences. An unassuming brick house on Kendall Avenue brought them together as lifelong friends.

Initially, Almasi invited Hansen and Laurence to move into that house after his previous housemates graduated.

Later, Cramer took Almasi’s place when he moved in with his future wife, Anne Kolan, MD ’09 (PG ’12, ’13). The house continued to be a central gathering place for the original and new housemates, plus Kolan and Hansen’s girlfriend, Theresa Morgan.

“It was a wonderful place. I remember other students making comments like, ‘Wow, this is a real house,’” Hansen shares. “Most of our furnishings were Vince’s stuff, but we all had homes and full lives before medical school, and we wanted to recreate as much of that as we could. Then a garden became another centerpiece of our lives.”

Designed by Laurence and maintained by all, the garden plot in Eagle Heights kept them well-fed.

“The plot was legendary. We made a trellis and fence,” Laurence says. “We weren’t doing the bar scene, and we lived really well.”

The group had two freezers in the basement — one filled with blanched vegetables and tomato sauce, the other with venison and organic meat acquired by Hansen, who once traded venison for salmon with then-Associate Dean for Students Patrick McBride, MD ’80, MPH.

Gathering around the dinner table kept the friends sane, they say.

“Everyone had wild schedules, and we were always in and out, but a lot of the time we would have dinner together, and we would sit around and talk,” Cramer recalls. “It really helped get me through the last year of medical school, when things were really challenging.”

They also shared their individual passions with one another. Almasi completed an Ironman Triathlon as a second-year medical student, and Hansen and Laurence biked the route with him and cheered him on. Laurence introduced Hansen to rock climbing, and the two often headed to Devil’s Lake after exams. Cramer, Hansen, and Laurence frequently ran to Picnic Point, and Cramer took the group to a pool where they learned how to roll whitewater kayaks for an emergency exit. The four friends celebrated their medical school graduation with a canoe trip in the Boundary Waters.

Cramer reflects, “It was touch and go as to whether we were going to all make it until finally Vince put his foot down and said, ‘We need to have a grand adventure!’ So, we loaded up the canoes, and as we were driving north, it started snowing — in May! Nevertheless, we persisted! Fishing licenses weren’t available until June, and it was freezing out, but it’s a story I’ll always remember.”

Laurence and Cramer now live out of state, but Hansen and Almasi still call Wisconsin home. Although in-person visits are infrequent, Laurence calls the group “soulmates.”

Almasi, Cramer, Laurence, Hansen smiling in front of a painting.
Left to right: Stephen Almasi, MD ’10 (PG ’13); Rebecca Cramer, MD ’10, MPH; Vincent Laurence, MD ’10; Joseph Hansen, MD ’10

Almasi married Kolan, and Hansen married Morgan, and the couples have kids close in age so they connect as families a few times a year. Almasi and his family saw Laurence on a trip to Montana in summer 2023. Cramer gets together with Hansen and Almasi when she returns to Madison to visit her parents, who have maintained the beloved garden for the past 15 years, and they send Laurence a photo of the plot every year. Cramer says Laurence is always there in spirit – and he once sent her a picture he won in a raffle because it reminded him of her.

Each friend makes a conscious effort to carve out time for their individual passions — it’s what helps them feel whole and able to provide the best patient care during challenging times.

“When you see a patient in crisis, have to share a difficult diagnosis, or help negotiate difficult treatment decisions, it takes emotional and physical energy,” Almasi says. “To care for people in a sincere way means giving something of yourself. To sustain that ability, you must take care of yourself and replenish your energy stores. In other words, you have to do something that fills your bucket.”

Almasi: Finding His Path

Stephen Almasi
Stephen Almasi, MD ’10 (PG ’13)

“As an individual with diverse interests, I had a hard time finding my path,” says Almasi, noting that while he did not follow a direct line to medical school, his passion for endurance athletics led him to become a family and sports medicine physician.

Almasi originally thought he would follow his father’s footsteps and become an engineer. After earning a UW–Madison bachelor of science degree in engineering in the top 20 percent of his class, he realized that his internship-related experiences in corporate culture did not feel like the right fit.

He had loved his undergraduate physiology courses — which aligned with his drive to push himself physically when running, biking, cross-country skiing, and swimming — so Almasi chose to earn a master of science in integrative physiology degree at the University of Colorado at Boulder. When considering career options, a friend who was in medical school suggested it might also be a good path for Almasi.

“I had always been intimidated by the idea of medicine, but seeing friends go through medical school was reassuring. It made me think, ‘These are just normal people, you can do this, too,’” he shares.

The outdoor life in Colorado was appealing, but the culture did not click with Almasi’s Midwestern roots. Having grown up in Waukesha, Wisconsin, and wishing to live near his family, he chose Madison for its earthy vibe, easy access to the outdoors, and top-ranked SMPH.

After earning his medical degree, Almasi completed a residency in the SMPH Department of Family Medicine and Community Health and a fellowship in primary care sports medicine at the University of Iowa Department of Family Medicine. In 2014, he returned to Madison, where he practices at Group Health Cooperative of South Central Wisconsin.

Noting that he was drawn to family medicine and sports medicine for their human-centered focus, Almasi says, “These fields are a little bit folksy. You need to be up-to-date on the science, but both are about how you relate to and communicate with people.”

He enjoys the wide range of patients and the focus on prevention in family medicine, and his patients in sports medicine often see him for overuse injuries – something to which he can relate.

Almasi just completed his second Ironman Wisconsin and has finished 16 American Birkebeiners – the storied 55-kilometer cross-country ski competition that runs from Cable to Hayward, Wisconsin.

He and Kolan — a family medicine physician at UW Health and a clinical assistant professor in the SMPH Department of Family Medicine and Community Health  — both practice part time as a way to keep work-life balance. As Almasi says, “Finding medicine after a long path perhaps offered more perspective on how I wanted my career to fit into my life.”

Hansen: Answering the Call

Joseph Hansen
Joseph Hansen, MD ’10

Hansen’s love of the great outdoors fuels his passion for rural emergency medicine and emergency medical services (EMS). Growing up in a remote area near Eau Claire, Wisconsin, hunting and fishing are in his DNA. And while others may share his passion for rock climbing, canoeing, backpacking, and gardening, he may be the only person in the Class of 2010 who has fought wildfires.

After completing an undergraduate degree in biology at Grinnell College in Iowa, Hansen worked as a wildland firefighter for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and served as an AmeriCorps volunteer through two fire seasons. He moved to St. Louis to do prairie restoration for the Missouri Botanical Garden for two years before he began yearning to do something else.

In 2004, Hansen began graduate-level ecology coursework at the University of Minnesota, but he missed the human connection. He found his volunteer work in an emergency department compelling, scientifically challenging, human-centered, and an overall great fit. So, he switched gears and called upon skills he learned through AmeriCorps to start a hazardous-tree-removal company to support himself while he completed pre-medical coursework.

Recalling his interview at SMPH, Hansen knew that was where he wanted to be; he says, “The facility was brand new, the people were amazing, and I thought, ‘I’ll be so lucky if I get in here.’”

Not only did he enter the Class of 2010, his peers selected him as their graduation speaker – a testament to Hansen’s work ethic and character.

Residency took Hansen to the Milwaukee-based Froedtert and Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, where he later served as the chief emergency medicine resident physician. He also served as a flight physician for the Flight for Life emergency helicopter transport program out of Waukesha and as a base physician for Milwaukee County EMS. Though practicing medicine in a major metropolitan area was challenging and interesting, Hansen felt called to get back to his small-town roots.

In 2013, he joined Madison Emergency Physicians, an independent practice that serves community hospitals and medical centers primarily in southern Wisconsin. He lives in Blue Mounds, Wisconsin – population 994 – with his wife and two children, and he splits his time between Upland Hills Health in Dodgeville, where he is the medical director of its Emergency Department, and St. Clare Hospital in Baraboo, Wisconsin; he also works at SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital – Madison a few times per year.

In addition, Hansen’s role as medical director for eight rural EMS groups reflects everything he loves about rural life — wide-open spaces, living among families who have been there for generations, and a blend of self-sufficiency with reliance on neighbors.

“My EMS crews are volunteers and take turns being on call. When a pager goes off, they go help their neighbor or a stranger,” he observes. “Despite the challenges to local economics and rural America, they show up. It is inspiring to work with people who are passionate about serving others.”

Laurence: A Long Journey

Vincent Laurence
Vincent Laurence, MD ’10

Noting that he entered medical school at age 45, Laurence paraphrases Grateful Dead lyrics as he says, “What a long, strange trip it’s been, and that’s kind of okay with me.”

Service in the U.S. Marines after high school changed the trajectory of Laurence’s life. When he graduated high school in 1978, he was renting a room in Florida and working for $2.10/hour.

“I wasn’t moving forward, and I needed a kick in the pants. I excelled in boot camp, and suddenly, I thought, ‘I can actually do stuff.’ The concept of being challenged and proving to myself that I could achieve things wasn’t in my background,” Laurence says.

He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree, magna cum laude, in English literature at New York’s Vassar College. Next, he established a career as a writer and editor for magazines and catalogs related to his true passions: woodworking, landscaping, and gardening.

As a master carpenter who loved working with his hands, he wondered if there was a way to use his skills for the greater good. While moving from woodworking to surgery seemed like a stretch, it also made perfect sense.

“You have to know what your tools are capable of and understand the steps involved in making something. There’s feedback one gets when working with tools that also occurs in surgery,” says Laurence. “You’re working with a material and becoming comfortable and familiar with its properties. That’s an experience people may not have if they haven’t worked with their hands.”

He devoted three and a half years preparing for this major career shift. He completed pre-medical coursework at Western Connecticut State University. He earned his Emergency Medical Technician-B certification with Emergency Training Resources in Danbury, Connecticut, and he worked as a research assistant with Yale University School of Medicine’s Department of Anesthesiology. Laurence says he felt like he won the lottery when he was accepted into the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.

After earning his medical degree, Laurence still had eight years of training ahead: six years as a plastic surgery resident at University of California, Irvine, and two as a reconstructive microsurgery fellow at the world-famous Chang Gung Memorial Hospital in Taiwan, where he was in a class of fellows from around the globe. Once back in the United States, he completed a fellowship in orthopedic hand surgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

With his training over, the Massachusetts native was looking to settle in a rural area surrounded by natural beauty. In 2018, Laurence moved to Missoula, Montana – a large town in a state with ample wide-open spaces – where he is the only plastic surgeon at Providence St. Patrick Hospital. Referring to himself as “a country plastic surgeon,” he is on call for facial trauma 122 days a year, with just him and two maxillofacial surgeons covering all of western Montana, from Canada to Idaho.

“People have asked me if my long journey was worth it, and the answer is yes – maybe not financially, but definitely for my life experiences,” Laurence says. “I’ve gotten to do incredible things, and I feel mine is a life well-lived.”

Cramer: The Fork in the Road

Rebecca Cramer
Rebecca Cramer, MD ’10, MPH

Cramer’s path to family medicine was fueled by a sense of adventure. After earning an undergraduate degree in biology from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, her primary goal was to find a way to get paid to travel.

Initially, her work as a research assistant for Population Services International (PSI) — a global health, non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C. — took her to sub-Saharan Africa. PSI had a presence in Benin, Kenya, and Uganda to promote the use of condoms and to research individual beliefs around HIV and condom use to prevent HIV transmission. Cramer worked in a clinic, analyzed data, and trained local research staff.

Her next stop was Atlanta, where she completed a master of public health degree at Emory University. She worked on HIV research teams in Zambia and completed clinical rotations at the Rwanda Zambia HIV Research Group Clinic and the University Teaching Hospital in Lusaka, Zambia.

Soon, she found herself at the proverbial fork in the road related to what she could do in research – pursue a doctorate or a medical degree.

“It was clear that the interpersonal aspect was the most satisfying and important to me. After seeing how transformative antiretroviral therapy can be for patients — I saw people go from looking like walking skeletons to being healthy and productive — I felt like medicine was the best fit for me,” Cramer says.

The Madison native chose SMPH for many reasons, among them that Wisconsin’s more than 15,000 lakes and 84,000 miles of rivers and streams fed her soul. A whitewater rafting guide and a “hard-core,” Class 4/5 whitewater kayaker, Cramer spent every possible weekend opportunity on the water with UW Hoofers and traveled to the Southeast to kayak. When applying to residencies, she prioritized programs in regions with access to the sports she loves.

Cramer completed a family practice residency at the Mountain Area Health Education Center in Asheville, North Carolina, a place she continues to call home. Since 2014, she has practiced at Community Family Practice.

“I enjoy hearing people’s stories, and I enjoy the negotiation of treatment plans. I find the interpersonal parts of my career interesting, and I am fascinated by family medicine. I continue to see medical conditions I have never seen before and that I have to figure out,” she says. “What keeps me going are the relationships I have had with patients I have seen since I graduated from my residency. Children I delivered are now 10 years old!”

In short, Cramer says being a physician feeds her soul.

“Like most things in life, I happened into this. Allowing life to happen and being open to it is what gets you where you want to be.”