Oklahoma has a dubious distinction, of which renowned wound care physician Tay Sha Howell is far from proud. The state has one of the nation's highest amputation rates, with about 1,600 lower extremity amputations every year, she said.
What's more, the leading amputation in Oklahoma — with its high obesity rate and high numbers of diabetes-prone Native Americans and Hispanics — is below-the-knee, followed by above-the knee. Nationwide, it's a toe and mid-foot.
“When it comes to saving a limb and preserving the most function, it takes a village of physicians,” Howell said, “from those in primary care and cardiology, to those in endocrinology, vascular medicine, infectious disease and other specialties.”
As director of the Norman Hyperbaric and Wound Care Center, Howell is passionate about educating health care professionals on advances in wound care, as well as the public about early intervention for sores that don't heal, controlling diabetes and the risks of smoking. Along with diabetes, peripheral artery disease is also a leading factor in the development of wounds.
Howell's staff of 13 averages about 730 patient encounters and 50 new patients a month. To meet the growing demand, the center — which rates high nationwide in healing percentages and days to heal — is being relocated in February, from Norman Regional Healthplex's professional building to its heart plaza. The center's exam rooms and hyperbaric chambers will double to 10 and four, respectively.
Howell, 44, sat down with The Oklahoman to talk about her professional and personal life. This is an edited transcript:
Q: Can you tell us about your first name and its origin?
A: I'm one-eighth Caddo; my dad is one-quarter, and Tay Sha (pronounced TEY-SHAH) is the Caddo word for friendly. I'm proud of my Native American heritage, but I can't claim to be a big supporter of Indian culture like my half-brothers — Chase Earles, of Ada, and Chad Earles, of Atlanta, who are nine and 16 years younger. Both are Indian artists and Chase, this past Red Earth Festival, won second overall for his traditional Indian pottery.
Q: Was your Indian heritage a big part of your childhood?
A: Not really. My father is the Native American and, after my parents divorced when I was 3, I lived in Edmond with my mom. An X-ray tech, she married my stepdad, a radiologist, when I was 8.
Q: Did their careers influence your decision to pursue medicine?
A: No. My plan was to become an artist. Growing up, I was involved in painting, drawing and drama. I was introduced to medicine during career night my freshmen year at OSU, and naturally excelled in my science courses that year. I remember one of my teachers reassuring pre-med and pre-veterinarian classmates who were freaking out because they'd flunked tests. Meanwhile, I'd done well, and that got me thinking about medicine.
Q: Did you meet your husband in med school?
A: I did. I was in my third year, and he was a surgical resident. We met during my surgery rotation and married one and half years later, in April before my June graduation. I wanted my married name on my diplomas.
Q: Before you accepted your current position four years ago, you practiced emergency medicine for nearly 10 years, mostly at Integris Baptist Medical Center. Are depictions in “E.R.” and “Grey's Anatomy” real?
A: There's a thread of realism in them, but the shows are so dramatic and grandiose. In real life, there are days in the E.R. that can be boring, others are exciting and others are really frustrating.
Q: What was your most memorable day spent in the E.R.?
A: Caring for a burn victim, after a car wreck. He was totally with it. But, though we continued trying to save his life, we all knew he wasn't going to make it. We had to let his family know to come quickly; that it was likely the last time they'd get to talk with him.
Q: What led you to switch from emergency medicine to wound care?
A: I wanted to have more time with my kids after school, and at dinner and bed times. For the first two years, I worked part-time in emergency medicine in Guthrie, and part-time in wound care in Midwest City to try it out. I found that I loved the continuity of care in wound care. Working in the E.R. often was a thankless job. You could've saved someone's life an hour earlier, and be cussed out for no coffee in the waiting room, a rude nurse or how long a visit took. Here, it's not unusual for patients to come to us with a wound they've had for two years, or after being told by several doctors they need to lose their leg. The average heal rate is three months; four to six if there are complications. Patients come every week; sometimes daily. By the time they finally walk out of here, they've become like family, and they regard us as their heroes.
Tay Sha Howell
• Position: Director of the Norman Hyperbaric and Wound Care Center, Norman Regional Health System
• Birth date: Oct. 24, 1967
• Hometown: Edmond
• Family: Clifford “Eric” Howell, cardiac surgeon and husband of 19 years; son Riley, 15, and daughter Ellie, 12, both students at Heritage Hall School, and “Buddy,” their 9-year-old Chesapeake Bay retriever
• Education: Oklahoma State University, bachelor's in psychology; University of Oklahoma College of Medicine, doctor of medicine. She completed her residency in emergency medicine at the OU Health Sciences Center.
• Favorite cause: Save a Leg, Save a Life Foundation. She's co-founder of the new Oklahoma Metro Chapter for health care professionals.
• Travel: Last summer's family trip was to London and Paris; this summer, it was eight days in Colorado.
• Guilty pleasure: She's a shoe hound, with a passion for strappy heels.