Robert Rotering ’71 has no bucket list.
“I’ve lived all over the world and done everything I wanted to do,” he said. “I’ve seen it all and done it all. I’ve lived my dream.”
Rotering’s vast career can’t easily be summarized, and fascinating stories flow rapidly from his memories: from when he served as a physician in the most remote areas of the world; cared for wounded soldiers in Saudi Arabia; flew more than 150 transport and rescue flights as a transport surgeon; authored two books; and even experienced the world’s first artificial heart transplant.
Yet his life history began humbly, on a farm in North Dakota. Rotering, a first-generation college student, came to Saint Mary’s as a seminary student at Immaculate Heart of Mary. Though he decided not to go into the priesthood, he continued his studies in philosophy.
“I was at Saint Mary’s during the socially tumultuous times of Vietnam, hippies and Woodstock,” Rotering said, adding that he appreciated the fact that the Christian Brothers encouraged civil discourse, particularly about the Vietnam War.
“The Christian Brothers were on the cutting edge of academic intellectualism at universities,” he said. “Saint Mary’s had mass protests in front of the student union with hundreds of students. It was a very dynamic time, and Saint Mary’s was very actively involved in national issues.”
Rotering fondly remembers tending to the rabbit farm on campus, and recalls one of the innovative Brothers who filled a 40-foot trailer with computers and took it to regional high schools to expose students to the new and yet-foreign technology.
“Saint Mary’s was family to me. It was just such a friendly, nurturing and supportive place,” he said. “You were friends with the Brothers, you camped and canoed with them, did community outreach with them. It was a wonderful time. Saint Mary’s was a key part of my finding my way in life educationally.”
Rotering made the most of his time at Saint Mary’s, volunteering on campus and off; staying active with student leadership, music and intramurals; and becoming a licensed pilot and founding member of the Tri College Flying Club.
Rotering also received a Woodrow Wilson scholarship to continue his philosophy studies, first in Boston and then in Europe, where he traveled, backpack in hand. “Everybody threw on a backpack,” he said with a laugh. “It was part of the hippie thing.”
After having what he called a “bread and- butter nightmare,” Rotering decided he should choose a career with a more tangible future. He decided on medicine and returned to Saint Mary’s for pre-med studies.
He then attended Rush Medical College in Chicago and trained in general and cardiothoracic surgery at the Mayo Clinic, the University of Utah and in New York. At Utah, he became the first resident in the U.S. trained in laser surgery, and he was a chief surgical resident in Utah during the world’s first artificial heart transplant.
But after finishing his medical training, Rotering decided a lucrative career in corporate medicine wasn’t what was calling his heart. “To this day, I would like to feel that the Christian spirit, the Lasallian spirit, was with me. I chose a life in the cause of active public good and global positive action in clinical care, education, advancing medical programs and improving societal issues in both hemispheres — living in service to others and in support of my country.”
“As a leader in global medicine, I was routinely called upon to care for royalty, rock stars and international VIPs but my heart was always most into helping those in greatest need. My home was always open to the poorest, voluntarily caring for the sick and dying who had never seen a trained medical practitioner.”
For example, Rotering said, “routinely on time off while working in Borneo in Southeast Asia, I would travel up the rivers deep into the jungle to care for indigenous people who had never met a Westerner or benefited from our medicine. That virgin triple canopy rain forest challenged me to practice without any amenities, but left me with the most cherished memories while living the Saint Mary’s call to lead and contribute to global transformation.”
Rotering’s career has included practicing medicine in four international locations: Grenada, West Indies; Saudi Arabia (10 years as a physician and medical director including Desert Shield, Desert Storm and Desert Farewell); Brunei, Borneo, Southeast Asia; and Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
“The times in my career that have been the most satisfying have been cradling a dying soldier taking his last breath, or in Southeast Asia, going up the Borneo rivers helping people who had afflictions that were easy to fix and care for. It gave me a sense of satisfaction that I never could have had if I had practiced for money.”
Rotering said he was inspired by a Project Hope poster that he saw when he was finishing his cardiothoracic residency that read: “Doctor, Teacher, Friend to the world.”
“I was looking for something like that,” he said. “In Grenada, we washed our surgical gloves and reused them. We operated in 110-degree heat with doors open and flies landing. But it was so satisfying to be able to make a difference. I could use all my energy to help uplift people who needed help and truly appreciated what I brought. And I did it in places most people would want to avoid.”
Now living in New York, Rotering is focusing on his four children, two in college and two in high school. He’s advised them to savor every second of college life.
“Attending Saint Mary’s was the greatest college experience anyone could ever have,” he said. “The Christian Brothers demonstrated possibility and inspiration. I want to give back to Saint Mary’s, to some of those students who are searching, and tell them to look at my story. I came as a seminarian, graduated in philosophy, wound up a surgeon. I ended up being a doctor, a teacher, a friend to the world.
“You can do anything as a graduate of Saint Mary’s,” Rotering said. “You’re in a world-class academic environment.
This article, written by Deb Nahrgang, was previously published in the Spring 2014 Saint Mary’s Magazine.