In war and peace, in medicine and the military ... a life of service

Ozaukee Press staff

Ronald Washak’s career path wasn’t guided by his interests in high school or influenced by his father’s job. It was guided by a tragedy.

Washak’s 5-year-old daughter died of Reye’s syndrome, a rare condition that causes liver damage and brain swelling.

“One day she was active. The next day she was in a coma and four days later we removed the ventilator,” Washak, 73, said from his Town of Sherman home.

She was one of the first to die from it in Wisconsin, he said.

That searing experience gave Washak, a Port Washington High School graduate who had been working in the military after returning from Vietnam, direction toward his life’s work. 

“I asked God to make me a doctor,” he said.

“I wanted to do something in the medical field. I felt that was one of the best things I could do for mankind.”

A nearly four-decade career in military and private medicine ensued.

Washak’s work led him to be nominated for the Port High Wall of Honor, which     recognizes veterans who attended the school.

“It was quite an honor. I never expected it,” he said. “I didn’t do anything anyone else didn’t do.”

Washak’s long career started when he attended the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, down the street from Parkland Hospital where President John F. Kennedy was taken after he was shot.

  Washak earned certification as a physician’s assistant, graduating at the top of his class. He hadn’t intended to become a physician himself, but a doctor told him he was too smart and would get bored with his work as an assistant.

Back to school Washak went, this time to the University of North Texas Health Center in Forth Worth.

Four years later, he was chosen as the best in his class in surgery, medicine and pediatrics, three of the five clinical awards given.

“That’s how hard I worked,” he said.

Washak married his wife Joni in Ohio during his final year of residency. He then took a job in Stevens Point doing ear, nose and throat surgery, but was called back into the military during Desert Storm.

He was assistant chief of surgery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., and chief of surgery at DeWitt Army Hospital at Fort Belvoir, Va., Some of the patients he treated had lost limbs or had appalling facial injuries.

“I had nightmares about that,” he said.

Years earlier, it had been Washak who suffered a grievous injury as a soldier. He was drafted after graduating from Port High in 1966 and during training in Texas a grenade blew up near him.

That sent shrapnel into Washak’s head, legs and back, and damaged his hearing.

“I was lucky it didn’t kill me,” he said.

He was patched up and sent to Vietnam as an infantryman, “which I’d rather not go into,” he said.

Two months later, he was sent home. A soldier who couldn’t hear well wasn’t cutting it.

Other than his injury, Washak didn’t find military training all that difficult compared to his upbringing.

He grew up an orphan — he never knew his father and his mother had given him up for adoption when he was young — and spent time in four different foster homes. His last was with a German couple in Port Washington. His father was a painter for Modern Equipment in Port.

“They didn’t hug you or kiss you,” he said.

His foster mother was a tough lady, once telling him if he got in a fight not to come home with a bloody nose and to take off his shirt because she wasn’t going to sew it for him.

Life in the orphanage wasn’t easy either. Chores had to be done with precision.

“If you didn’t do it right you had to do it over again,” Washak said.

That helped prepare him for the Army.

“To me, the military was a snap because I was prepared for it,” he said.

Washak was always up for a challenge, choosing plastic surgery as his specialty.

“It was probably the most innovative part of medicine,” he said.

After Desert Storm, Washak took a position with the plastic surgery residency program in Des Moines, Iowa. It was a position through the Air Force and because he was in the Army, Washak didn’t get paid.

To make money, Washak took a 60-hour weekend shift in emergency rooms at hospitals in the area, from 6 p.m. Friday to 6 a.m. Monday, with an hour nap mixed in here and there. Then, he drove from wherever he was — sometimes as much as an hour away — to start his work week.

Washak resigned from the Army as a captain and later joined the Air Force as a flight surgeon to help the 115th Fighter Wing of the Air National Guard in Madison.

His service included 400 hours of flight time, some of it in F-16 fighters, and centrifuge testing similar to that of NASA astronauts.

If he was going to treat pilots, he said, he wanted to know what they were going through.

With patients at military bases across the world, Washak was sent to Spain, Italy, Iraq and Afghanistan to pick them up for treatment.

He was promoted to major, then lieutenant colonel. He had a chance to take one step up and be a colonel, but “that was enough for me,” he said.

Washak worked in private practice for years, including in West Bend and Rockford, Ill.

In West Bend, he once treated seven patients for snowblower accidents in one 24-hour period. Some never made it to the operating room because he didn’t have time. He treated them in the emergency room and sent them home with antibiotics and pain medication.

Washak’s shrapnel-injured back had gotten worse from years of leaning over patients to perform surgery, a common problem for surgeons, he said. After undergoing a nine-hour operation on his back, he suffered a stroke.

When he wasn’t practicing medicine, Washak, along with Joni and their three daughters, farmed their 90 acre-parcel in the Town of Sherman in Sheboygan County, near Random Lake, along with two more plots totaling 60 acres, until 2015. They grew corn and soybeans and raised beef cattle.

Today, Washak enjoys the company of his three labs and collects comic books. Batman and Superman are his favorites.

He also appreciates art. After taking an art class at Marquette University, the professor asked him to do drawings for an anatomy of physiology manual. He also taught art for a few years in Menomonee Falls.

“I wanted to do a lot of different things. I get bored real easy,” he said.

“I asked God to let me do things and he has. I pray a lot.”



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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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Port Washington, WI 53074
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