Southwest Spotlight: Healing and herding: Husband, wife doctors manage medical careers, 3 kids

There's not just one doctor in this Dickinson house. There are two, but one sometimes leaves in the middle of the night to deliver babies. And in the early mornings, one or the other leaves -- one trains for marathons and the other for triathlons...

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Press Photo by Virginia Grantier Rena Zimmerman, left, also known professionally as Dr. Rena Nordeng, poses Thursday with her family, holding son Lane, 13 months. Her husband, Dr. Ryan Zimmerman, stands behind their elder sons Heath, 4, left, and Grant, 3, at their home in Dickinson.

There’s not just one doctor in this Dickinson house. There are two, but one sometimes leaves in the middle of the night to deliver babies.
And in the early mornings, one or the other leaves - one trains for marathons and the other for triathlons. However, there’s always someone home for guardian duty.
That’s because in this home of family practice doctors, husband and wife team Ryan and Rena Zimmerman - the later is known professionally by her maiden name, Dr. Rena Nordeng - there are responsibilities they love dearly.
Three of them, to be precise: ages 4, 3 and 13 months - their sons, who are greeting the morning in full voice this day as if practicing for a loudest-boy contest as they move through the house like puppies after tennis balls.
“God gives us strength on rough days,” said Rena, smiling through the hurricane.
Doctoring, parenting, athletic training: It all can be handled in part because of decisions the couple, now in their early 30s, made a few years ago.
“All decisions we make together - what’s best for both of us,” Ryan said Wednesday.
The couple, who met and married during medical school at University of North Dakota, had been recruited since medical school, and then through residency, by MedCenter One, now Sanford Health.
But they decided, and then told the recruiters, that a condition of employment would be Wednesdays off, in addition to Saturday and Sunday - so they would have enough time to be good parents for the family they planned to have.
“They told us, ‘You’ll take a big pay cut,’” Ryan said.
They took the big pay cut.
“You know, I’ve never regretted it,” he said.
Also, Ryan had planned on becoming a surgeon and Rena was going into obstetrics. But they decided that would be too difficult. As a surgeon, he’d always be on call in Dickinson, and she would have a crazy schedule. So they decided to both become family practice doctors, although a focus for Rena is prenatal care and deliveries.
Rena said she likes that when she’s gone at midnight delivering a baby, the boys don’t know it.
Dr. Kamille Sherman, who had a family practice in Dickinson until recently accepting a teaching position with UND’s medical school, said she has known the Zimmermans since their first year of medical school and that Dickinson is fortunate to have them.
“They bring really good clinical skills and dedication to their patients in a community that needs all the physicians we can get,” Sherman said.
She said the Zimmermans are exemplary at balancing life and work.
“They are continually busy, but they do everything well,” Sherman said.
She said the Zimmermans “work hard to stay current on everything that develops in medicine,” and that Ryan has received additional training to perform endoscopies and colonoscopies.
Ryan said he didn’t want to be a family doctor who just dealt with colds. He wanted to work with his hands. So he does various procedures, including removal of skin cancer, vasectomies and so on.
Ryan, who grew up in Bismarck, said he went to UND planning to study engineering. But he said he missed people - the social aspect - when dealing with just numbers and computers during an internship with a local power company. His mom was a registered nurse and he started thinking about medicine. A stint volunteering in an hospital’s oncology unit solidified it.
“I liked the whole environment,” he said.
Ryan said he liked the idea of helping people, as well as taking complex problems and trying to solve them.
Rena said Ryan, whose undergraduate degree is in chemistry, is “whip smart” and a compassionate doctor whose colleagues love him. One even nominated Ryan for North Dakota’s “doctor of the year.”
Rena, who grew up on a farm north of Watford City, said she loved math and science, and knew early on she wanted to be a doctor. Although she’s not sure how she got the idea, in about junior high, Rena said she started telling her family about her goal. Her parents supported her, but suggested she study hard because she would need a really big scholarship.
The straight-A student, long-distance runner, 5-foot-tall gymnast and student council member got scholarships, and the biggest was from UND.
As an undergrad, Rena remembers the financial struggle. She said she would take boxes of cereal from the cafeteria to eat for her suppers, and she never wanted to drive anywhere to save gas.
She also started training for marathons because she’s goal-driven and it helped deal with the grief of the unexpected death of her father. In the first week of medical school, a fellow med student, Ryan, overheard someone talking about Rena running a marathon and he was impressed, he said. He contacted her about going for a run.
So their first date was a four-mile hard run, but they were still able to hold a conversation, Rena said.
Ryan, sometime after that, sustained an immobilizing shoulder injury in the annual Malpractice Bowl, a football game pitting med students against law school students. He couldn’t take notes or do laundry and Rena became his “Florence Nightingale,” he said.
Rena said a year after the two met, they were running in the rain when Ryan appeared to slip and fall on a wooden bridge they were crossing. Rena looked back and he was on a knee, proposing to her.
They married on a January day, because they had a three-day weekend from medical school. She remembers their Grand Forks apartment, in an old house, had rickety outside stairs she worried would cave in. They had no thermostat to control the cold. But they did have mice, catching six one night.
They later moved to Bismarck for two years of clinical work where Rena said Dr. Brenda Miller modeled for her the kind of doctor she wanted to be.
“She was the person who showed me I could be a doctor, mom and a wife,” Rena said. “She had incredible relationships with her patients.”
The Zimmermans then began a three-year residency in Pocatello, Idaho, which they completed in 2010. Rena said the first year was the toughest with 80-hour weeks and 30-hour shifts.
The couple’s main goal now is to raise “good citizens,” Ryan said.
And healthy ones. The family belongs to a food co-op and gets weekly baskets of fruits and vegetables, and they have a small garden. Recently, the boys helped with the green-bean harvest. Snacks, they said, are generally fruit. Breakfast is usually oatmeal, but when they have pancakes, they’re whole wheat with flax meal in them. Lunches are packed, supper leftovers, usually.
“We’re always planning, organizing … cooking and putting meals in the freezer,” Ryan said.
Rena said for most chronic diseases people end up with, lifestyle plays a role.
She suggests eating more plants. “We focus too much on meat and carbs,” she said. “And be more active.”
Ryan said he tells people to do something they enjoy. They don’t have to step on a treadmill if they don’t like it, and outdoor hobbies are easy exercise.
“Hunting is just hiking with a gun,” he said. If it’s golf, “walk the course.”
Or just chase three little boys around for awhile.

Grantier is a feature reporter for The Dickinson Press. Contact her at 701-225-8111.

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