Otten Honored With Chair for Education in Emergency Medicine

Dr. Edward Otten

Edward Otten, MD, has been called upon to help in natural disasters as part of his wilderness medicine training.

“Humility is an underrated virtue and in medicine if you’re not humble, your patients will make you humble,” says Edward (Mel) Otten, MD, professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at the University of Cincinnati (UC) College of Medicine, and namesake of the newly established Edward J. (Mel) Otten Chair for Education in Emergency Medicine. The chair was approved by the UC Board of Trustees this past August.

“The practice of medicine will make you humble because it’s an inexact science,” Otten says. Considering all he has accomplished in his career, it would certainly be understandable if Otten bragged some from time to time, but that’s not his style.

Growing up in Price Hill on Cincinnati’s west side, Otten attended Elder High School and after graduation enlisted in the U.S. Army, serving for four years as a medical corpsman and pharmacy specialist. That stint included a tour of duty as a combat medic in Vietnam which sowed the seeds for a career in medicine.

“I learned a lot, and it really helped me when I went to medical school,” Otten says. “That training and experience I had actually taking care of patients while serving in Vietnam and working in a couple of pharmacies in the United States on military bases made me feel like I had a good background in medicine.”

After receiving his bachelor’s degree in biology at Kenyon College, and his medical degree at UC, Otten did his internship in internal medicine at Good Samaritan Hospital and returned to UC for his emergency medicine residency training.

“I started out as a nurse’s aide in the emergency room here in 1973,” Otten says from his office at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center (UCMC). “I had been a medic in the Army, and when I got out of the Army and graduated from college, I came here for medical school and I was looking for work. So they hired me in the emergency room as a nurse’s aide. I think I got a $1.25 an hour, which was pretty good back then.”

Otten immediately took to working in the emergency room at UCMC, which was home to the first training program in the world for emergency medicine.

“I knew all the guys in the beginning,” he says. “The guys who first started out were like the pioneers in emergency medicine. I always wanted to do emergency medicine, because to me, it was never knowing what’s going to come through the door. Somebody can come through the door with a gunshot wound, motor vehicle crash injuries, a heart attack, a stroke, you don’t know what’s going to come through the door. I think the idea of being there for people who really need you and they need you right now is really what attracted me to emergency medicine.”

Otten’s passion for medicine took him beyond the emergency room. His love of the outdoors and nature led him to join the Wilderness Medical Society (WMS) in the mid-1980s, an organization devoted to the challenges of wilderness medicine, including expedition and disaster medicine, dive medicine, search and rescue, altitude illness, cold- and heat-related illness, wilderness trauma and wild animal attacks.

Shortly after getting involved in the WMS, he also became a member of the Disaster Medical Assistance Team, (DMAT), a group of professional medical personnel designed to provide rapid response medical care during a disaster.

“I’ve been to every disaster since Hurricane Andrew,” he says. “I’ve been to Tokyo, I’ve been to Haiti, I’ve been to Turkey, I’ve been all over internationally and nationally for disaster response. I’ve been to hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfires and I’ve been to war a couple of times.”

Otten’s face brightens as he talks about his DMAT experiences. “To me it’s really basic medicine. You’ve got a stethoscope and a flashlight and you’ve got to use your brain–there’s no MRI or CT scanners and operating rooms. It really is pure medicine in a way.”

Otten is a throwback in a lot of ways. During the course of a conversation, he’ll casually toss out a quote from Hippocrates—”Art is long, life is short,”—and the website for his endowed chair includes a line from Shakespeare, “Creatures that by a rule in nature teach.” His nickname of Mel was given to him by his fourth-grade football coach in reference to Hall of Fame baseball player Mel Ott, who played for the New York Giants from 1926 through 1947.

The push for establishing the Edward J. (Mel) Otten Chair for Education in Emergency Medicine came from Arthur Pancioli, MD, Richard C. Levy Professor and Chair of Emergency Medicine.

“The department of emergency medicine at UC is where formal training in emergency medicine began and it has the richest tradition in the field,” says Pancioli. “Despite the long history and the number of amazing people that have made it all possible—only one individual has received the UC Emergency Medicine Lifetime Achievement Award,” which was given to Otten in September of 2015.

“Dr. Otten has affected the field of emergency medicine more than anyone I know through his unparalleled clinical teaching,” Pancioli says. “He won the departmental teacher of the year award so many times people started calling it the Mel Otten award. He is a friend, a colleague and one of the most influential teachers I have had in my lifetime.”

The education element is crucial to Otten’s vision for the chair. “I want it to attract people who want to come here and educate the residents,” he says. “That’s my real love of medicine. I still go down to the emergency room and walk through there almost every day, and ask the residents about the kinds of patients they are seeing now and try to make it a teaching moment, and I think that’s the kind of person we want to attract with that chair.”

When asked if there is anything he is most proud of in his medical career, Otten says, “There really is. It’s when I go to a national meeting and one of the people that I trained 30 years ago comes up to me and says, ‘Remember when you told me this? Well, I’m telling my residents that now.’ It’s kind of like the ripple effect. You never know what effect you have on people and it goes out generations. To me that’s thing that makes me the happiest.”

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