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Get to know Dr. Karen Bender, pediatric anesthesiologist at Arnold Palmer Hospital

January 31, 2014

Knowing that your child needs surgery can be difficult for any parent. One of the most frightening aspects for parents is knowing that your child will be under anesthesia. How will my child respond to the anesthesia? Will he or she recover well? Will you keep my child safe? These are just a few of the many questions that parents have as they prepare their child for surgery.

Our pediatric anesthesia team at Arnold Palmer Hospital is nothing short of extraordinary. Our team has a small window of time to assure patients and their families that they can be trusted, and that their child is in the best of hands. We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Karen Bender, chairman of the Department of Anesthesiology at Arnold Palmer Medical Center, to help our community get to know her better, and bring awareness to the life-saving work of Dr. Bender and her team.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up just outside of Philadelphia in Camden, New Jersey, and then my family moved to Ft. Lauderdale when I was in high school.

Where did you go to medical school?

I went to undergraduate and medical school at the University of Florida (Go Gators!).

What are your hobbies? What do you like to do when you aren’t in the hospital taking care of kids?

I enjoy helping other people. I think of that as my life's work and my biggest hobby. I also am an avid reader and love learning. I have no athletic gifts – I’m pretty terrible at all sports, but I exercise regularly and love watching SEC football.

Over the years, I’ve taught myself Spanish. I once chaperoned a trip for high school students at a language school in Cuernavaca, Mexico where I had the opportunity to study the language for three weeks. Since I now no longer need a translator, I am able to better communicate with Spanish-speaking families who have a child in need of surgery at the hospital. I also like to educate myself on various cultural differences and backgrounds, which helps me to better understand and respond to each patient's unique healthcare needs.

I have raised three children - two are finished with college and in the workforce, and my youngest began college this year.

How do you help other people outside of Arnold Palmer Hospital?

I’ve had the opportunity to provide medical care to people in other countries who have limited access to healthcare resources for over 22 years. Because I’m also a board-certified pediatrician, I donate of a lot of time caring for kids, mostly in Mexico.

I am also passionate about caring for women who come to the United States who are unable to speak English well, if at all. I teach English classes as a way to help give them a positive start in their new environment.

What would your dream vacation be?

Well, I do love to travel. When I get time off, I love to travel because I love history. I think that when you understand the past, you can better understand the present. I love art and architecture. Most of my family roots are in Russia, where I was able to visit about six years ago. I’ve been to Egypt, South Africa, Argentina, and most of Western Europe as well as many wonderful places in the United States.

Out of all of the places you’ve been, where would you like to visit again?

That’s a hard question for me to answer, because I love diversity. For example, when I was a kid and people asked what my favorite color was, I didn’t have a favorite. I just loved that when you look at the world, it’s full of color. I think of traveling like that. For me, I just want to go someplace new and experience something different.

If you could meet anyone who would it be?

There have been so many great people in our world that have created, developed, grown, and helped. In modern times, it would have to be Nelson Mandela. I would also love to meet the many other people who were quietly courageous, never gave up, never lost hope, and fought through circumstances that were seemingly against all odds. You know, people who led the world to change.

Why did you choose Pediatric Anesthesiology?

I love children. When I was in medical school, it was a time when there were not that many women in medicine. Because it was suggested that a woman going into the medical field would become a pediatrician or perhaps an obstetrician, I tried to stay away from those areas. I wanted to be different. But when I started my rotations, I realized it was just very natural to work with children. I like caring for the whole family and not just the disease, and I think pediatrics has that focus. It’s very rewarding, even through sad moments.

I also like fast-paced things and critical care. Combining pediatrics with anesthesiology allows me to do both of these things.

When a child comes in to pre-op, how do you treat them differently to preserve their childhood and ensure them that everything is going to be okay?

I try to be sensitive to developmental stages. How is a child going to express anxiety? Fear? How is an adolescent going to react to the fears associated with surgery? Being aware of all of these things is what’s important. We often use smart phones and iPads to help distract the kids and make the experience more relaxing.

How long have you worked at Arnold Palmer Hospital?

I have been here 24 years. I started working here six months after it opened, and I have never wanted to leave. It is the most fantastic place to work. The team we have here is amazing.

What do you enjoy the most about working here?

I look forward to knowing that there is going to be a moment in every day where I know we have made a difference in someone else’s life. That is extremely rewarding.

Has there been a patient who has made an impact in your life?

There is one boy in particular who is special to me, who I took care of when he was first born. He is in high school now. No one thought he would survive due to his many challenging problems that required multiple surgeries to correct. His mom sends me a letter every year with a picture to tell me how he’s doing. He is now volunteering to help other children with special needs. To see him grow into a wonderful young man and give back to others is so rewarding.

What is something that most patients and families wouldn’t know about you when they meet you?

They probably have no idea how much I pay for hair services each year, given my hair is always under a cap!

On a more serious note, I want to be remembered for always putting my patients first.

Has being a mother yourself changed the way you care for kids?

I think that when you parent children, you can walk in other people’s shoes and know what it feels like to be in a certain situation. My first child was born premature and had to have open-heart surgery, and ultimately had a lot of health problems. My daughter has a chronic autoimmune disease. Having gone through these things as a parent has helped me relate to families in a different way. It’s an emotional level experience that’s different.

What piece of advice would you give a family whose child is undergoing surgery for the first time, and they don’t know what to expect?

I think the hardest thing for a family whose child is undergoing surgery is the fear that comes with it. But the child can sense a parent’s fear, and can become more fearful because of this. I think it’s important for parents to find the strength to put their own fears and anxiety behind a wall so that they can be there for their child. But it can be hard to do this; especially the more complicated the case is.

And also, don’t be afraid to ask questions!

Learn more about Pediatric Anesthesia at Arnold Palmer Hospital here.

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