Ann Stroink ’76 masters one of medicine’s most demanding fields.
Story by Nancy Steele Brokaw '71 Photos by Marc Featherly
It’s not exactly brain surgery.
We all say it — usually in a disclaiming, equivocating, oh for heaven’s sake, just get the job done sort of way. A little sloppiness on the road to a project’s completion is okay.
Unless, of course, it actually is brain surgery.
Meet neurosurgeon Ann Stroink ’76. Her margin of error, all day long, is pretty much
zero. If she’s a millimeter or two off, to the right or the left, it can mean the
difference between life and death, between newfound mobility and paralysis, between
continued intractable pain and relief.
“I’m a little bit OCD [Obsessive Compulsive Disorder],” Stroink says with a smile,
as if that explains everything. She insists, absolutely insists, that her operating
rooms, equipment, supplies, records, everything, be just so. “I’m very demanding in
that way,” she adds.
But precision only takes you so far in a field that also requires fierce intelligence,
critical thinking, drive, stamina, an ability to stay abreast of rapidly emerging
technology and, perhaps most of all, a sense of adventure.
She’s all that — and you can see it in her eyes, following surgery, as she strides
into the BroMenn Regional Medical Center’s surgeons’ lounge on a Monday morning, her
face still lined from a surgical mask. “That went well!” she declares.
“That” was a thoracic laminectomy, done in this case to remove a tumor the size of
a melon ball that had grown along a patient’s spinal column. “It was high-risk surgery,”
Stroink reports. “There was a chance of paralysis because the spinal cord has been
smashed to a thin ribbon by the tumor.”
“Look,” she continues, holding her hand out. “A spinal cord is about the size of my
thumb. When the tumor is removed [the cord] will expand back into the space the tumor
occupied. . . .”
“Here!” she says, snatching a pencil and paper. Stroink quickly makes four sketches
illustrating, top-down, the stages of the surgery she’s just completed. “Does that
make sense?” she asks.
Over the course of a day, she’ll pose that same question to nurses, administrators,
residents, health-industry reps, patients and even her college-aged daughter, who
manages to snag a few cell-phone minutes with her mom between surgeries.
“Does that make sense?” could be interpreted as Stroink’s discreet way of asking,
“Are you keeping up?” It’s a query that makes perfect sense coming from a person with
so much knowledge, so little time to share it and a real desire to establish clear,
mutual lines of communication with those she interacts with during the day.
The question also reflects the often-rigorous demands of Stroink’s upbringing in Bloomington,
Ill. Her mother, Victoria, taught her a lot but it was her German-born pathologist
father, Hans Stroink, who asked the demanding questions — with the expectation that
his daughter’s answers would make perfect sense. From fifth grade on, Stroink worked
in her dad’s pathology lab after school and on weekends. When it came time to choose
a college, the elder Stroink determined “a big, state school” was the most sensible
choice for his daughter and, accordingly, young Ann was dispatched to the University
“I had no professors,” only teaching assistants, Stroink recalls. “I didn’t like it;
I wanted to come back to Illinois Wesleyan for second semester.”
She knew she’d have to come up with a convincing argument to get her father’s consent.
Provost and Professor Emeritus Wendell Hess served as head of Wesleyan’s Chemistry
Department back in that fall of 1972. He remembers talking with Stroink about her
desire to transfer.
“Here she came,” Hess fondly recalls, “this bright girl who wanted to go to medical
school. I told her we had a good record with that and we could prepare her but that
she’d have to do well in school, and do well on the MCAT exams.”
Stroink worked out a financial analysis before she went back to her father and pitched
her “best value” proposal. She could live at home and keep working at her dad’s lab.
He relented and a new Titan came on board.
“There weren’t a lot of women in pre-med back then,” Hess says, “but I knew soon that
Ann was going to do it. She was bright, motivated, disciplined. Maturity-wise, she
was one to three years ahead of most of the other women — and all of the men.”
“I think about Illinois Wesleyan all the time,” says Stroink, who has served as a
University trustee and won IWU’s Outstanding Young Alumnae Award in 1986. From the
windows of the surgical floor at BroMenn, she can look down on the University campus,
a view that inspires vivid memories. “A liberal arts education has such value, even
just for the philosophy itself,” she says. “I remember Humanities with Dr. Doris Meyers,
how the light came through the windows, everything.
“Your college education is the springboard of your future,” Stroink continues. “Those
years are so important; every parent needs to weigh those [options] out very carefully.”
Ann spent much of her time at Wesleyan studying with David Skillrud ’76, who would
become her husband before graduation and with whom she would go on to Southern Illinois
School of Medicine and, later, residency at the Mayo Clinic. Stroink and Skillrud,
a Bloomington pulmonologist, had three children and later divorced. Stroink is now
married to Gary Shultz, who is vice president/general counsel at Mitsubishi Motors
“I remember the day I found out I got into medical school,” Stroink recalls. “I was
sitting in the library, looking out the window, and here comes Dr. [Biology Professor
Bruce] Criley, almost at a run. ‘Ann, Ann,’ he says, ‘you got into medical school!’”
She pauses. “I want to be that nurturing,” she declares.
After medical school, it was time to convince her father again — this time that her
choice of a medical specialty made sense. “My dad poured a glass of German white wine,”
Stroink recalls. “He had just raised it to his lips after saying, ‘So, you have finally
decided what you want to be?’”
“Yes,” Ann replied. “I want to be a neurosurgeon.”
The elder Stroink spilled his wine, then made a quick recovery. He promptly suggested
“No,” Ann told her dad. “I don’t want to see a tumor I could have taken out.”
Neurosurgical training in the U.S. is very competitive and grueling. As the first
and only woman in Mayo’s neurosurgery program during her residency, Stroink was determined
to work circles around her male colleagues, and succeeded.
She decided to open her neurosurgery practice in Bloomington in 1985. The biggest
pull back to her hometown was the opportunity to have multiple family members nearby
to help nurture her children as they grew. “I wanted a dual role,” she says, “Mom
She and her husband, Gary, now have five college-age or grown children between them.
Looking back, she says, she couldn’t have done it without help from many people —
including colleagues, nurses, her secretary and a series of nannies that became known
as “house supervisors” as the kids got older.
Still, no amount of help could compensate for how hard Stroink has had to work. She
admits to toiling “pretty much 24/7 at the beginning.” This kind of heavy workload
is one reason that the number of doctors in her field has shrunk dramatically in the
past two decades. There are now fewer than 3,000 neurosurgeons in the U.S. and only
about 150 in Illinois. “We’ve lost a lot of neurosurgeons,” Stroink says. “It’s just
Indeed, just trying to understand the scope of Stroink’s job is dizzying. She and
two partner neurosurgeons operate a busy clinical and surgical practice that falls
under the rubric of Central Illinois Neuro Health Sciences. Also in the same Bloomington
building (which once housed her father’s pathology lab) is a pain-management center
employing five doctors, a rehab facility, and an imaging center with in-house MRI
and CT scan equipment.
Roughly, her weekly schedule goes
Monday – performs surgery at BroMenn Regional Health Center in Normal, Ill. (often four
or five surgeries in a day).
Tuesday – sees patients (usually 40 to 50 per day).
Wednesday – performs surgery at OSF St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Bloomington, Ill.
Thursday – volunteer work and teaching.
Friday – sees more patients.
Stroink is on call every third night. It makes it hard for her to get out of town
but she finds time to travel, attending conferences and giving lectures across the
nation about her ongoing clinical research. She’s been instrumental in the design
and implementation of several research protocols. It’s important how data is collected,
Stroink maintains, so that outcomes can be accurately compared. She is now following
closely the development of the CyberKnife, a non-invasive radiation system that treats
tumors previously regarded as inoperative. Every week Stroink monitors treatment plans
involving the CyberKnife’s use at the local cancer center and she serves on a protocol-development
committee for use of the tool in brain and spinal-cord cases.
Stroink’s commitment to improving her profession motivated her to help found the Bloomington-based
Central Illinois Neuroscience Foundation a little over 10 years ago. Stroink saw a
need to bring a neurosurgery resident program to Central Illinois to help alleviate
the burgeoning needs for neurosurgical patient care and also to provide an educational
resource to health providers, the community and medical students and residents.
“Our residency program brings in the best young minds out there,” she says.
Is it hard for her to keep up with those agile young minds?
“They have to keep up with me,” she says with an ardent gleam in her eye. “I’m very
competitive; you should see me whip through journals.”
“I try to teach them to think critically,” Stroink continues. “It’s important not
to assume anything but to think on your own.”
The foundation keeps expanding in new ways. Jennifer (Johns) Troyanovich ’94 has been
there almost from the beginning and now serves as executive director. “We gave away
1,600 hours of CME [Continuing Medical Education] last year,” she says. “Dr. Stroink
motivates and inspires her colleagues, associates and staff with her commitment to
excellence, genuine goodwill and frank enthusiasm.” Troyanovich describes her involvement
in the foundation — and keeping up with the fast pace of Stroink’s schedule — as “a
very wonderful adventure.”
Back at BroMenn Regional Medical Center on that busy Monday morning, Stroink has one
surgery under her belt and three more to go. In the surgeons’ lounge, she toasts a
bagel, spreads it with peanut butter, and gulps another cup of coffee. She’s occupying
two operating rooms this morning, but things are running behind schedule because of
an emergency subdural hematoma.
A nursing student approaches, somewhat shyly. Stroink wants him to watch her next
surgery, a ventriculostomy, which involves placing a catheter through the skull to
the ventricle of a patient’s brain. “You’ll be taking care of this,” she tells him.
The student looks nervous but Stroink puts him at ease, asking him where he’s from,
what his special interests are.
“I have to ask,” says the newly emboldened student. “Do you watch ‘House’ on TV?”
Stroink laughs. “The last medical show I had time to watch was ‘Marcus Welby,’” she
says. Clearly, the student has never heard of the series, which aired in the 1970s.
“Are they ready for me?” Stroink asks her resident.
They are not. “For this job, you have to be happy with entropy,” she deadpans.
Her nurse has arrived with an enormous suitcase, containing the files of the 51 patients
Stroink is scheduled to see the next day. Together, they go through every file, carefully
and quickly. You can feel the concentration.
“Her memory is amazing, absolutely amazing,” says Ashish Shah of Bloomington, a student
at Midwestern University / Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine who is doing his
rotation in neurosurgery. “We’ll see 60 patients and she’ll know every one of them
by name. I’m young [he’s 25] and I hope to develop a memory like that.
“Dr. Stroink’s a great teacher,” Shah continues. “She lets us scrub in on cases, see
things firsthand. Not all sites are like that, and to medical students that means
He watches Stroink go through the charts, then dart into the operating room, returning
with a blanket around her scrub-clad shoulders (it’s 62 chilly degrees in the O.R.),
to confer with the resident about an ER patient.
“She’s five places at once,” Shah says, shaking his head. “I haven’t learned that
Keith Kattner has been Stroink’s neurosurgical partner for 13 years. “Residents love
working with her,” he observes. “She’s a strong educator,” he says, likening Stroink
to “the tough teacher you loved.”
One of Stroink’s surgeries on this Monday involves removing a tumor from a patient’s
pituitary. As usual, there is no margin for error.
“Patients say to me, ‘How can you operate on my brain?’” Stroink says. “I tell them,
‘I already did it last night in my mind.’”
She admits to clipping aneurysms in her dreams.
“Neurosurgery is a dinner party for 30,” Stroink continues. “Everything has to be
set up. I go through the mechanics of every operation in my head the night before.”
Finally, they are ready for her. Stroink goes into surgery for an hour and comes back
out flushed. “Neurosurgery is an upper-body workout,” she declares.
The hospital food staff has left a crockpot of chili on a table in the lounge for
surgeons and nurses. Stroink fills up a bowl and flops in a chair to eat. Within minutes,
five people are lined up to see her.
One is a colleague who has written an article for publication. Stroink reads through
the draft (again, you can feel the concentration) and makes several suggestions. “Does
that make sense?” she asks the writer, handing it back.
Her phone rings. A medical company is setting up a cadaver lab in the area in early
May. “I want to invite Peoria neurosurgeon residents to piggyback on that,” she says
briskly. “I want double benefit. It’s thriftier.”
Stroink is concerned about procedural protocols on an ER patient. She tells the residents
she thinks the usual procedure should perhaps be rethought. What do they think? Does
that make sense to them? Why or why not?
Her lunch concluded, Stroink marches out into the hallway to talk to a couple of industry
reps. This, too, is part of her job. These particular reps sell a sort of cement that
Stroink can insert through hollow needles into the bones of patients.
Janice Cole of Bloomington was the recipient of such a procedure. At 85, she took
a bad fall. After five months of seeing various doctors, she was wheelchair-bound
and in terrible pain. “I went to see Dr. Stroink,” Cole reports, “and she said, ‘Janice,
I’m sorry you didn’t come to see me sooner; we can help you.’”
“I know it sounds crazy but she put cement in my spine and the relief was enormous,”
Cole reports. “I’m on a walker now.”
Stroink likes what these industry reps are selling but the final decision on which
products will be used rests with hospital administrators who “might not like one product
as well as another that costs more and is only slightly more effective,” she says.
“I deal with these conflicts everyday.”
She’s not about to let these reps off easy. “Look, where you guys grow in volume,
we should see decrease in price,” she says, her voice crisp with authority.
Once more, Stroink strides off to the operating room. Brain surgery, she says, is
the best part of her job. “A chance to cut is a chance to cure.” She is thrilled with
all the advances she’s seen over the last two decades, especially in treating spinal
injuries, making better outcomes for more patients.
Still, not all patients are destined for good outcomes, and dealing with that reality
is a hard part of her job. “Delivering bad news is horrible,” she says.
“I never do it over the phone,” she continues. “I’ll bring the patient in and I’ll
tell them in person, this is not good news, but we’re going to win as many battles
as we can.”
An even tougher battle for neurosurgeons these days, Stroink says, “is the medical-liability
climate.” According to a recent University of Utah study, rising professional liability
insurance costs have produced such pressure on many practicing neurosurgeons “that
continued practice in many regions of the country has become fiscally untenable.”
Stroink believes that “medical malpractice would be greatly improved if doctors took
control of medical testimony by using the peer-review system that is in place to review
Another thing that worries her, as a physician, is the increase in overweight patients.
“Being overweight leads to so many problems,” she says. “It’s one of the biggest challenges
And for heaven’s sake, never tell a neurosurgeon that you bike without a helmet.
Eventually, darkness falls and Stroink’s patients are all out of recovery. She heads
out, seven residents and students in tow, to talk to anxious families and make rounds.
After dinner, she’ll participate in an hour-long conference call with colleagues on
a workforce issue. “Now that we have residents and I’ve cut my hours back to about
95 a week, I’ve become more politically active,” she says.
Stroink has served as president of the Illinois State Neurosurgical Society. “From
a national perspective,” Kattner says, “she’s among the most powerful women in neurosurgery.
... She’s widely respected and well-known.”
At she heads out the door, Stroink asks, “What do you think was the most stressful
part of my day?”
The exacting surgeries? The constant interruptions? “I think it was that phone call
from my daughter,” she says, answering her own question. “You know . . . kids in college
. . .”
Perhaps, at the end of a long day, Hans Stroink would have said something similar
about a conversation with his college-aged daughter.
And, perhaps he would have asked that same question that his daughter poses at the
end of this equally long day.