As a child, Roberta Sengelmann, M.D., spent many weekends making rounds with her father, Robert P. Sengelmann, M.D., a plastic and reconstructive surgeon. Dressed in kid-size scrubs, she gently held the hands of patients who had sustained burns, trauma or undergone cosmetic surgery while her father changed their bandages and cared for them.
“I’ve always had a primitive instinct to want to help people,” she says. “Even as a child, I admired the connection my father had with his patients and his ability to improve their lives. I modeled my career after his devotion to his patients.”
By the age of 12, Sengelmann was observing her dad’s cases in the operating room. In high school, Sengelmann discovered she had a knack for math and science and was recognized with a merit scholarship. By the time she graduated, it was clear she was well on her way toward becoming a physician.
Now, as director of the University’s Center for Dermatologic and Cosmetic Surgery and an assistant professor of medicine, Sengelmann has turned her childhood dream into a reality.
As a dermatologic surgeon with special training in Mohs micrographic surgery, reconstruction and aesthetic enhancement, Sengelmann focuses on prevention and treatment of the harmful effects of sun damage such as skin cancer and age-related changes.
As a Mohs surgeon, Sengelmann is trained to surgically remove the cancer cells and to read the pathology to assure margin clearance. The technique offers exceptional cure rates for non-melanoma skin cancer while allowing preservation of healthy tissue to minimize scarring.
Sengelmann performs nearly 1,000 Mohs surgeries annually and directs a fellowship approved by the American College of Mohs Micrographic Surgery and Cutaneous Oncology.
“Dermatologic surgery has truly pioneered minimally invasive aesthetic surgery, and it is imperative that someone with competence and experience train our residents and fellows,” says Lynn A. Cornelius, M.D., chief of dermatology and an associate professor of medicine. “Roberta takes great pride in her work and in imparting her knowledge and skill to trainees.”
Sengelmann also specializes in minimally invasive facial rejuvenation procedures as well as body contouring with tumescent liposuction, a fat removal procedure performed under local anesthesia that helps reduce postoperative bruising, swelling and pain. Recently, Sengelmann teamed up with two of the world’s leading experts to give an international workshop on the tumescent liposuction technique in Colorado.
She continues to help develop many of the latest cosmetic advances, including training physicians nationally on the latest rejuvenating procedures and serving on advisory boards to help steer the development of new products like Botox, Restylane, Hylaform and Radiesse.
Dermatologic surgery also allows Sengelmann the opportunity to be creative.
“Everybody’s face is different, so each case presents its own artistic challenge,” she says. “Sometimes the simplest change can go a very long way in enhancing appearance and boosting self-esteem. I try to help people improve their appearance without interfering with their daily activities and quality of life.”
Cornelius explains that while Sengelmann is an excellent dermatologic surgeon, backed with an incredible knowledge of cutaneous malignancies and skin cancer surgery, she also possesses an incredible talent for aesthetics.
“Roberta, along with a select group of her dermatologic surgery colleagues, has been on the forefront of advancing minimally invasive aesthetic surgery,” Cornelius says. “She also is an extremely caring, compassionate, detail-oriented and conscientious physician — a combination that serves our specialty and our patients well.”
Attention to detail
While earning her medical degree at New York Medical College, Sengelmann knew she wanted to be a surgeon but wavered between specializing in dermatology and head and neck surgery or following in her father’s footsteps and pursing plastic and reconstructive surgery.
The desire to focus on disease prevention, early diagnosis and pathology, ultimately drew Sengelmann to dermatology and dermatologic surgery.
“I talk to my patients about ways to prevent disease and illness,” she says. “Every patient who sees a physician is in some way vulnerable, and I take that responsibility very seriously. I hope to inspire my patients in some small way that will ultimately have a positive impact on their lives.”
During medical school, Sengelmann not only discovered that dermatology was a perfect match, she also found true love. At orientation, she met Tamir Keshen, whom she quickly befriended.
“What impressed me most about Roberta was her confidence and compassion,” says Keshen, M.D., an assistant professor of surgery of pediatrics. “She has this amazing aura that attracts people and draws them in — people just want to be around her.”
Jeff Peterson, M.D., Sengelmann’s partner and an assistant professor of medicine, also adds that he admires her positive attitude and compassionate approach to medicine.
“Roberta has a great attitude — every day she walks in with a smile,” he says. “She has such a warm and genuine bedside manner, and she’s just as concerned about her patients’ and staff’s problems as she is her own. She has this big-sister mentality that’s very caring.”
Some of those nurturing qualities stem from the fact that Sengelmann has five brothers. Growing up as the only girl in a large family — and the only one of her siblings to become a doctor — Sengelmann has a special bond with her father. Now, instead of observing him in the OR, she consults with him on cases and loves the opportunity to operate with him.
Everyone from her dad and husband to her colleagues and patients admire Sengelmann’s meticulous attention to detail and endless energy.
“Dr. Sengelmann’s dedication to excellence is unwavering,” says practice manager Theresa Barnett. “She is never complacent and always gives 100 percent. She works very hard to provide patients with the best possible care.”
Keshen admits his wife has more energy than anyone else he knows.
“She could juggle flaming torches, plan a budget for a small country and make dinner at the same time,” he jokes. “Roberta has an amazing ability to multitask — her battery never stops.”
A medical match
After graduating from medical school, Sengelmann and Keshen “couples matched” at the University of Iowa to pursue an internship in internal medicine and residency in general surgery, respectively.
Hobbies: “I love to lollygag with friends and family. Downtime is so rare and precious. I also love outdoor sports — skiing, swimming, hiking and running. Nature soothes me.”
Family: Along with her parents and husband, Tamir, she also has five brothers and four stepsisters.
Hometown: Santa Monica, Calif.
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In 1994, Sengelmann left her fiancé in Iowa and moved to Houston to begin a dermatology residency at the University of Texas Health Science Center/M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Keshen joined her a year later when he began a postdoctoral research fellowship in neonatal metabolism at the USDA/RDS Children’s Nutrition Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine.
However, their different specialties would soon cause the couple to separate again. Only days after they married in 1997, Sengelmann began a fellowship in Mohs/Advanced Dermatologic Surgery at the University of Texas Southwest Medical Center in Dallas, and Keshen returned to the University of Iowa to finish his general surgical training. Neither suspected the separation would last for five years.
“When one door closes, another opens,” Sengelmann says. “I looked at the time Tamir and I were apart as the chance to jump into my career with both feet.
“Keeping our priorities straight and focusing on the long-term goal is how we made our relationship work while we were apart.
“We love each other too much to let something as trivial as distance break us apart. It also helps that we both love our work.”
Sengelmann joined Washington University in 1998 and just two years later she was appointed as the director of the University’s Center for Dermatologic and Cosmetic Surgery.
The new position entailed designing and building a new facility, now located at 969 Mason Road, and overseeing everything from ordering surgical equipment to choosing the office décor.
In 2002, after completing a pediatric surgery fellowship, Keshen came to Washington University.
“The high caliber of the faculty, the resources and the chance to collaborate with some of the best physicians in the world is what drew us to the University,” Sengelmann says.
“But it’s not just the faculty that continues to impress us. The staff here is also incredibly talented. And the patients are so grateful — it may be a Midwestern thing.”
In addition to pursuing their careers at the University, Sengelmann and Keshen are looking forward to adding to their family, which now consists of two cats and two dogs — one of which is a stray (named Lucy) they adopted at a Stray Rescue benefit two weeks ago.
“Whether it’s running in the rain, adopting a stray dog or eating pancakes for dinner, I never take the conventional or predictable path,” Sengelmann says.
“If there’s an obvious course of action, I’m likely to cultivate one that is uniquely my own.”