R-P grad named to Mayo Clinic Hall of Fame

Dr. Kristi Colbenson, right, recently received her third consecutive “Teacher of the Year” award, earning her an induction into the Mayo Clinic Hall of Fame.
Scott Bestul

She’s only 35, but Dr. Kristi Colbenson is already at the top of her profession. Colbenson, a 2001 R-P grad, an ER/sports medicine physician at the Mayo Clinic, was recently inducted into the clinic’s Hall of Fame.

The Hall of Fame honor is awarded only to a faculty member voted as “Teacher of the Year” three times during the course of their career. Colbenson, who has received the award in each of the last three consecutive years, is among the Hall of Fame’s youngest inductees. “It’s incredibly humbling and exciting, because the residents nominate instructors and vote on them,” Colbenson said. “I work hard and always try to do my best, but it’s not something I expected at all.”

Dr. James Colletti, vice-chair of the Emergency Department who has mentored Colbenson since she first entered medical school, said the award was well-deserved and truly exceptional. “To win ‘Teacher of the Year’ once is pretty uncommon, and to get it three times in a career is just rare,” he said. “There are only two other people in our department in the Hall of Fame.”

Colletti noted that residents – doctors in training who have graduated from medical school and are now receiving three-four years additional years of training in a specialty– base their ‘Teacher of the Year’ nominations and voting on several criteria. “Instructors are judged on a variety of areas: their bedside teaching, the feedback they give to residents, their mentorship and guidance abilities, and their curriculum development,” he said. “Kristi is exceptional in all of these areas. She just ‘gets it’ when it comes to the best ways to teach. She’s dedicated to her craft and it shows up in her curriculum; it’s innovative and smart and as thorough as she can possibly make it. More importantly, Kristi is excited about the learner. She makes time for her residents and is calm and patient and serves as an excellent role model for them.”

Others who know Colbenson are not likely to be surprised at her success. Colbenson was a standout student-athlete in her years at R-P, starring in the classroom, the basketball court, the cross-country course and the track. After graduation she attended Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., where she majored in biology and continued her success as a basketball player and track and field athlete. Following graduation from Carleton, Colbenson took a year off from school to do research. When she learned she’d been accepted into the Mayo Medical School the next year, Colbenson called it “the proudest moment of my life.”

Like the doctors-in-training she now teaches, Colbenson somehow endured the rigors of residency. “You honestly work 100-hour weeks, but that’s the only way to get the exposure to, and training for, the skills you need to be a physician,” she recalled. “It’s a huge commitment, both personally and financially.”

Following medical school, Colbenson went to Vanderbilt University in Nashville to specialize in Sports Medicine and Emergency Room medicine, before returning to Mayo. Her present duties are currently split between the emergency room, sports medicine and, of course, teaching. “It’s a really interesting mix and totally different ways of practicing medicine,” Colbenson said. “In sports medicine I’ve worked with athletes from high school through the pros, and I may be dealing with a patient who has nothing more complicated than knee pain. Then I go to the ER, where it’s totally the opposite; I can have a patient whose vital signs are crashing, and I’ve got 12 people looking at me and waiting for me to make the right decisions to save a life. It’s pretty adrenaline-packed.”

Surprisingly, Colbenson feels her athletic experience can be vital in handling such a crisis. “You know, I thought that competitiveness you feel as an athlete would be lost after I quit competing in college, but it’s not,” she said. “When you walk into the ER some days it’s kind of like going into battle. I’ll even listen to some of the same music I did before a big game or meet in college. But it’s still hard, I’ll get five minutes to have a critical conversation with a patient about their situation and how to handle it, and while you’ve been trained to compartmentalize and fall back on your training, it’s almost impossible to not feel anything when a patient is at their weakest, most vulnerable, moment.”

Colbenson strives to bring that same combination of skill and empathy to her role as an educator of future physicians. “We’re very fortunate to get the best of the best when it comes to residents,” she said. “They’re very skilled and highly motivated and we hold them to really high standards. At the end of three years here, I want them to be able to walk into any emergency room in the world and be able to do the work. “

As if her professional life isn’t demanding enough, Colbenson happily devotes herself to “the greatest husband in the world” (Nate Rykal) and three kids under five (Myla; 4-1/2, Greyson; 2-1/2, and Wells; 3 months). She also stresses the influence of her parents, Craig and Nancy Colbenson, in any success she’s enjoyed. “They’ve fostered my desire to try to be a good human being. When I was a kid, my brother, sister and I heard almost daily to find your passion, pursue your dream, and to always do your best while pursuing that dream. Most importantly, they role-modeled those beliefs. What I’m doing with my life right now is a testimony to my parents ”