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Meet the 2019 First Decade Alumni Award Recipient: Tori Bahr ’09

Tori and her family
Tori, her husband Paul Sanft ’05 and their daughter Eleanor

Dr. Tori Bahr ’09, a medical doctor at the complex care clinic of Gillette Children’s Hospital in St. Paul, has been awarded Augsburg University’s 2019 First Decade Alumni Award. The presentation will be made at a January 10 event in her honor.

Bahr has always been fascinated by how our bodies work, and she started expressing interest in being a physician as far back as kindergarten when she knew an older student with cancer. Over the years, she was naturally drawn to science classes, and her career plans didn’t veer. When she entered Augsburg to do premed coursework, she settled into a chemistry/biology double major.

However, after her third year as an Auggie, some questions loomed. As she worked on her personal statement for medical school, she realized she didn’t know why she wanted to be a physician.

Mind the gap

Before long, she saw the wisdom in taking a “gap year” to explore those areas that interested her most—teaching and medicine. During this gap, she worked at multiple jobs. As a result of teaching ACT and MCAT prep courses, and tutoring high school and college students in math and science, she learned that not only did she prefer one-on-one teaching over classroom teaching, but that “there are few things better in the world than helping a student struggling to understand a subject to master it and excel.”

During the gap, she also worked as a medical scribe for a company in Shakopee, run by an Auggie, Jaime Kingsley-Loso ‘01. In this setting, she was exposed to multiple patient encounters by Emergency Physicians, which gave her a striking picture of how incredible it is to be able to apply the physiology she had learned in science classes to impact human disease. Already inclined toward compassion and patient-centered care, she was impressed with some physicians there who used their time at a patient’s bedside to educate the patient and family.

And it struck her. She could do both—medicine and teaching.

With her gap-year workload already excessive, Bahr decided, nonetheless, to answer an ad on Craigslist to become a personal care attendant for a young woman (an Auggie) with a neurological condition. It was this experience more than anything else that solidified for Bahr that medicine was the first career she would pursue. Here, she learned how physicians and medicine really impact a person’s everyday life, and she saw the importance of understanding the effects of that which she prescribed and asked of the patient and family.

The gap year had been most instructive in Bahr’s emerging sense of career, and the clarity was further enhanced in the summer prior to her Augsburg graduation, when she spent a month in Ghana, working in a health clinic in a small village.

Transition care and complex diseases

Bahr’s new work at Gillette Children’s Hospital, which began in November, provides a fine opportunity for her to serve in two emerging and underserved areas dear to her heart. The first is seeing patients with medically complex diseases, which often involve technology (such as wheelchairs, feeding tubes, and breathing tubes), neurocognitive delays, and multiple specialists. Integration among specialties isn’t automatic—or even common.

The second area is championing transition care, a relatively new focus that pediatric and adult healthcare systems across the country are struggling to address, now that children born with severe heart defects, cerebral palsy, or other rare congenital conditions are living beyond their childhood and teen years, even into their 40s. Thus, thanks to drastic advances in pediatric care the last couple of decades, many patients require continuing care into adulthood—care which medical schools didn’t expect “adult doctors” to have to study and eventually provide. And more research is needed to understand long-term risks of these diseases, as well as appropriate preventive care.

During her gap year, Bahr caught a glimpse of the problems with this “transition,” and as a result pursued a combined internal medicine and pediatrics residency program, in which she was trained for—and is now board-certified to care for—both adults and children. Working at the intersection of both categories gives her opportunities to be innovative in her approach. Gillette’s first grant from the Minnesota Department of Health will give a nice boost as they kick off this new work.

Woman, wife, mother, and physician

Tori and her daughterPrior to her work at Gillette, Bahr served her residency at the University of Minnesota Medical Center, in the Internal Medicine-Pediatrics Program, where she took over as Chief Resident in 2018. Her former co-residents there are among her closest friends, confidants, and cheerleaders, and she sees the MedPeds faculty as having been amazing role models and mentors to her, even showing multiple ways to integrate one’s professional life and personal life.

Bahr will be “forever grateful” for her Augsburg coursework—and to her mentors for not putting her “on the conveyor-belt pathway to becoming a physician.” She specifically mentions Mark Strefeler, Joan Kunz, Sandra Olmsted ’69, Dixie Shafer, Jennifer Bankers-Fulbright, Dale Pederson ‘70, and Doug Green—all of whom encouraged her to honor the process (and pace) of exploring alternate career ideas in order to make absolutely certain that medicine was her true vocation.

Her gratitude to Augsburg extends even further since that is where she met an “incredibly talented, kind, and thoughtful spouse”—Paul Sanft ’05. They met through mutual friends in the Auggie sports network. Sanft owns a video and photography company, Ideatap Studios, and finds time to work at the nonprofit Pacer Center, which helps kids with disabilities navigate everyday life and the school system.

Three-year-old daughter Eleanor is curious and loves to explore, which fits nicely into the family fondness for travel and hiking. And they’ve already gotten a nice head start. After Bahr completed her training to become a physician, the family celebrated by taking a six-week road trip through the Canadian Rockies. Be assured that won’t be their last adventure. Their plan is to visit all 59 U.S. national parks.

—by Cheryl Crockett ‘89