Dag Hammarskjold, an early United Nations secretary-general, believed that parents could leave their children only two things. “One is roots,” he said. “The other: wings.” Omaha seems to have inherited an abundance of both. This sparkling city on the Missouri River cannot be dismissed as merely part of what East and West Coast “sophisticates” call Midwestern “flyover” territory.
Hardy 19th-century pioneers and entrepreneurs laid the groundwork that made the city a transportation, insurance, and meatpacking hub. Successive generations took flight with grandiose ideas and accomplishments in varied ventures. Twentiethcentury merchandising genius Rose Blumkin masterminded the Nebraska Furniture Mart, an unparalleled sales empire, managing it well past her 100th birthday. An Irish priest opened a home for destitute boys; today Girls and Boys Town has branches across the U.S. Investment genius Warren Buffett catapulted the investment/acquisitions game into a multi-billiondollar enterprise.
As the city rocketed into the 21st century, riverfront transformation was in the works, sparked by a futuristic $291-million convention center and a $90 million glassy performing arts center overlooking both the Missouri River and the Gene Leahy Mall, a swath of green that sweeps west through the heart of downtown. Its waterfront neighbor is Heartland of America Park, with a spectacular fountain shooting 9,500 gallons of water 300 feet skyward every minute. One county official calls it “a majestic landmark to showcase the gateway to Nebraska and the West,” a kind of western cousin to St. Louis’ Gateway Arch. In fact, Omahans have called their town The Gate City for a long time. Work began this spring on Lewis and Clark Landing, a new riverfront recreation site with a restaurant, walking and biking trails, a boardwalk, and an unusual footbridge to Council Bluffs in Iowa. “In the last five years the whole riverfront has been transformed,” exults Kathy Schultheiss, the convention sales and marketing director. “Now people driving here are saying, ‘Wow! Did I get off at the wrong exit?’”
Other city promoters say that Omaha, as a tourist destination, “is probably as good a depiction of ideal America as there is anywhere.” That includes the historic “comfort zone” called the Old Market, an early harbinger of city renewal. Its downtown warehouses are now filled with loft housing, shops, pubs, and restaurants, most of them locally owned—not franchises.
Omaha has been billed as the city “where intellectual capital goes to work,” but it also boasts nicknames like “silicon prairie” and “the 800 capital of the U.S.,” thanks to a farsighted telecommunications infrastructure. Its medical systems are close technocousins. In fact, it would probably be hard for almost any city to match the futureworld activity that’s energized Omaha health care in the last 10 years. Fully digital hospitals, computerized information systems integrated among dozens of clinics and hospitals, bloodless surgery, robot pharmacists, robotic surgery, integrated diagnostic centers, centralized operating room controls, worldwide voice-andimage- sharing during surgery…it’s almost enough to strike awe in Captain Kirk.
But the high-tech systems are not enough to satisfy healthcare leaders working to bring old-fashioned tender loving care in line with space-age medical procedures. Administrators at Alegent Health, a regional system of seven hospitals and some 100 outpatient sites, have adopted the Planetree Philosophy, a humanistic approach incorporating homelike surroundings, pleasing colors, lighting and art work with calming lobby waterfalls, sleepover space—including computer ports—for relatives, pet therapy, and the “five-minute challenge.” Staff members are encouraged to soothe patients by sitting with them for five minutes at the beginning of each shift. It’s a nicety that has touched ministry educator Mary Sue Sturgeon. “I followed a nurse after she spent time with my daughter, who was a patient. The nurse was really busy, and after she left the room she literally ran down the hall. But while she was with my daughter she was completely focused.”
Transplant surgery has been a mainstay at the University of Nebraska Medical Center for 20 years, with an organ “inventory” now including livers, bone marrow, kidneys, hearts, bowels, pancreases, and stem cells. Today the program attracts patients from all 50 states and at least 17 foreign countries.
The quest for better care and results has hardly stopped there. In 2001, when laparoscopic gall bladder surgery was performed on a 40-year-old woman, UNMC became the eighth U.S. medical center to use the Storz 1 OR system, a robotic-technology combination devised by the Bausch & Lomb Co. that creates, as Dmitry Oleynikov, MD, puts it, “a seamless integration between man and machine.”
Oleynikov could be a poster boy for the technological revolution, as well as for the city itself. Brought to the U.S. as a two-year-old when his parents left Russia, he grew up in New York City but began migrating west after his 1994 graduation from Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Involvement with video-endoscopic surgery in Seattle was a first step toward his current position at UNMC as director of the Training Center for Minimally Invasive and Computer Assisted Surgery—and an adjunct assistant engineering professor at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln.
At least two factors clinched Oleynikov’s decision to relocate in Omaha. “I had known Dr. Bud Shaw, the Department of Surgery chairman, for many years, and I knew he had a vision for increasing efforts to bring advanced surgical technology research to the university.” He was also swayed by the spirit behind the Storz installation: a “generous donation” from philanthropist Charles Durham, who “has truly given smartly. He earmarks his donations for research in new and exciting ways of treating illness.”
Omaha itself has been a comfortable fit for Oleynikov and his wife, Sonja, an ob/gyn. “People in the Midwest are very nice and very welcoming.” He was impressed that “a standard suburban home” was big enough for his family, which includes two small children, an aunt and a grandmother. “The neighbors greeted us right away, and we’ve become wonderful friends.” It doesn’t hurt that housing prices—and the cost of living in general—are more than 10 percent below the national average, although taxes are considered high.