Finding the sweet spot
Dr. L. Michael Howell (BS Med ’64) discusses the new scholarship endowment bearing his name.
“I have a sweet spot in my heart for the UND medical school,” admitted Dr. L Michael Howell. “My two years there were some of the best years of my life. There was a camaraderie in those two years—the best I ever had anywhere.”
A better endorsement of UND’s School of Medicine & Health Sciences (SMHS), the only school of its kind in North Dakota, was perhaps never made.
In an effort to give back to the school that gave him such a “sweet” start on a 40-year career as a surgeon, the Lisbon, N.D., native, along with his spouse, recently established the Dr. Michael and Michela Howell Scholarship Endowment. The $100,000 endowment (coming to UND in five annual gifts of $20,000) will provide scholarships to individual SMHS medical students.
“That should grow somewhat over time and provide a steady scholarship to students who could significantly benefit from it,” Howell said.
A 1964 graduate of UND’s Bachelor of Science in Medicine program, Howell obtained his M.D. from Georgetown University in 1966—about a decade before UND began offering its four-year MD program. After completing a residency in general surgery, across three states, and serving two years as a surgeon in the U.S. Army, Howell and Michela, a Michigan native and former ICU nurse, eventually settled in Fargo, N.D.
Being close to UND gave the Howells an opportunity to re-establish ties to the school.
“I joined the Fargo Clinic in 1973 and this proved to be an excellent choice,” explained Howell, who oversaw UND medical students and at one point had his own son—2001 MD program grad Michael J. Howell—on surgery rotation. “I was a regular teacher of surgery to the medical students and was later appointed a clinical professor of surgery for UND. My wife didn’t initially want to move North Dakota, but after a few years she thought it was great here and was happy we could raise our four children here.”
Calling the term general surgery “a bit of a misnomer,” Howell said he did find a sub-specialty in gastric bypass surgery for persons grappling with extreme obesity.
“I did 5,000 [gastric bypass surgeries] over 38 years,” he explained, adding that he worked hard to improve his technique on a very challenging open operation that still doesn’t always lend itself well to a laparoscopy. “I was the first person to do [gastric bypass] in the area. Gastric bypass on a 400-pound person is a very difficult operation because if the patient is a certain size, you really can’t do it laparoscopically. It continues to be a technically challenging and difficult operation. But I persisted at it and became the predominant obesity surgeon in North Dakota.”
Calling the emergence of laparoscopy and eventually robotic techniques the biggest change he saw in surgery during his career, Howell added that these operations greatly helped the individual patient and he enjoyed sharing in their happiness at their weight loss. He notes, however, that obesity continues to be a major health problem worldwide.
“We never ran out of patients,” he said. “There were exceptions, but most patients were motivated to let the operation work. It did take a long time for the medical community to accept that this operation was worthwhile for severely obese patients. Once you saw patients a year post-op, and how happy they were and how it helped them, it justified the procedure.”
In the end, Howell credits Michela with helping make his career a success.
“My success was dependent upon our success in marriage,” he said. “We have four wonderful children and 10 grandchildren, and we feel like we’ve accomplished a lot and are enjoying the fruits of our labor. Some doctors my age say they didn’t want their kids to go to medical school, but I don’t think that at all. I thought it was a great career.”
To learn more about how you too can establish a scholarship endowment for medicine or health sciences students with the UND Alumni Association & Foundation, visit undalumni.org/smhs.