Alumni Q&A: Dr. Steven Henglefelt

Aug. 29, 2023
Alumni Q&A: Dr. Steven Henglefelt

Recently, the Department of Physiology caught up with Steven Henglefelt, MD, a 2012 alumnus of the Department of Physiology who went on to earn his medical degree from the College of Medicine – Tucson. Dr. Henglefelt practiced anesthesia in Tucson for his residency before joining a pediatric fellowship in Los Angeles. Now, he practices as a pediatric anesthesiologist in his native Phoenix. Dr. Henglefelt shared with us how his time as an undergraduate student helped him on his way to his medical degree and in his work as an anesthesiologist.

Department of Physiology: How would you describe your time as a Physiology student here in the College of Medicine – Tucson?

Dr. Henglefelt: My experience was literally life changing. I met my wife in the dorms freshman year, we took PSIO 201 together and she went on to become a clinical oncology pharmacist. As for physiology, I learned so much and developed a passion for physiology, particularly cardiopulmonary physiology. I met so many wonderful people and developed many friendships with classmates and faculty, many existing into today. I achieved all my goals and more, and I think very fondly on my time as a physiology student at the University of Arizona.

Department of Physiology: How did the Physiology classes, specifically undergrad, prepare you for your career?

Dr. Henglefelt: I am a pediatric anesthesiologist, and the physiology major is the largest contributor to my passion and success as an anesthesiologist. Taking these courses expanded my introduction to physiology across many systems, particularly immunology which I preceptored with Zoe Cohen, PhD. I can tell you I did not learn any physiology of the immune system in medical school – it was all review. This held true across nearly every system I studied in undergrad and having such a great foundation prior to medical school took so much pressure off learning these concepts in the fast paced, drink-from-the-fire-hose medical school curriculum.

Moving on to my career as an anesthesiologist, I am using physiological concepts I learned in undergrad on a daily, if not hourly basis. It is so ingrained that I’m not even aware when I’m applying them. When I have off-service (which is to say non-anesthesia) residents come into the operating room with me on rotation, I teach them basic physiology which is crucial to all fields; for example: hemodynamics and mechanisms of hypoxemia. I say I was born to be an anesthesiologist due to familial background in pharmacology – basically everyone in my family is a pharmacist – and a passion for physiology which was realized in undergrad. It is often said that anesthesiology is the marriage of physiology and pharmacology.

Department of Physiology: What would you tell your younger self about college? And about how things turned out for you?

Dr. Henglefelt: I would give myself the same advice I give freshman and undergraduate students when I speak at club meetings: it is ok to ask for help. It is so easy to assume that when you’re struggling, it’s just you, and other people have figured it out. Most of the time I have found that when I was stressed or struggling, many of my peers were too. I honestly don’t think I would tell myself how things turned out – I’ve seen “Back to the Future” too many times – but I would encourage the hard work and dedication that got me to where I am today

Department of Physiology: What was it like working as a teaching assistant in the Physiology department?

Dr. Henglefelt: I can’t recommend preceptoring or serving as a teaching assistant enough. The best way to learn is to teach, 100%. It’s one thing to learn a concept enough to answer questions about it on an exam, but to stand in front of other students and answer their questions, you really need to know the concept front & back.

Department of Physiology: What is something you’ll always remember about your time as a Physiology student?

Dr. Henglefelt: A highlight for me was my senior thesis. After going to several Physiology Club community outreach events where we taught elementary school students about the heart and how it works, I teamed up with our faculty leader, Dr. Cohen, to learn how to create a physiology curriculum that 2nd graders could comprehend. This introduced me to educational research on the different learning stages children advance through during childhood and different techniques that can be used at each stage to ensure retention.

Ultimately, we utilized a dance inspired by an old physiology video that uses motion and dance moves by the body to mimic the contractions of the atria and ventricles. The video becomes humorous when the concept of arrhythmias and bundle branch blocks are introduced. The children enjoyed themselves immensely doing the “heart dance,” but I don’t think they had as much fun as Dr. Cohen and myself. This has also been relevant to my career as I use these techniques daily when I interact with children before I administer anesthesia for their procedures.

Department of Physiology: How would you describe the Physiology major to someone who may be curious about it?

Dr. Henglefelt: I would describe it as the best major for the pre-health professional student. Many students come to the physiology major with medical school aspirations, but it is also a great foundation for anyone interested in the science of the human body. I’ve also known many students who came into college thinking about medical school, but they instead decided to pursue an academic career in the basics sciences.

I would also explain the profound benefits of choosing the Physiology major because of the community they would be welcomed to join. The major is hosted by a very resilient and passionate faculty and staff which have grown this major from a small undergraduate offering in a predominately graduate program to one of the largest physiology undergraduate programs in the country. Their ability to overcome obstacles and come up with creative solutions to offer these courses to so many students is inspiring.  Their passion carries over to their students. It lifted and propelled me into medical school, and having met physiology students last year, I continue to see the excitement and ambition in the students that isa result of the support their receive from the faculty and staff.

Department of Physiology: What did you know about Physiology when you were just starting out as a student? Did you know about any possible careers?

Dr. Henglefelt: I didn’t know much. I actually declared as a biology major when I was first accepted to the University of Arizona. It was on a programs & majors information form that I saw physiology as an option and switched immediately without ever looking back. I did this because physiology was my favorite course in high school, and I was fortunate to have this background. I knew it would be the best preparation for medical school, and I was very committed to a medical career before entering college.

Department of Physiology: How do you like your current job? How would you describe it to someone with no medical or Physiology knowledge?

Dr. Henglefelt: I LOVE my job. Above all the other benefits of being a physician anesthesiologist – the fact that I can wake up and feel gratitude and enthusiasm for my job is something I appreciate greatly and will never take for granted.

I introduce myself to my pediatric patients as the “sleep doctor.” I say that I’m the doctor that will give medicine to make kids safe and comfortable during surgery. I consider all the health aspects of my patients to tailor a specific plan of medications and techniques to make sure their health and comfort are optimized for whatever procedure they are receiving. When someone is under anesthesia, a lot of the mechanisms their body uses to regulate and keep itself safe goes away, so I must step in and be the brain essentially. I adjust the breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, fluid balance, and muscle tone to optimize the patient condition during surgery – and those conditions can change several times within the same procedure.

To those that have a little bit more insight into the medical field, I say that I am the medicine/ICU physician of the operating room, along with pain medicine procedures. I’ll perform nerve blocks, epidurals, and a variety of intravenous lines and for a specialized list of procedures/interventions while still maintaining general medicine knowledge needed to diagnose medical problems that can occur during anesthesia & surgery.