ith her head bent forward in concentration and fingers working vigorously, Krystal Tomei, MD ’06, first shaves off a small section of hair on her patient’s head — just at the point of incision.
Using the remainder of the 16-year-old girl’s straight, dark brown locks, Tomei creates several braids. Tomei, a pediatric neurosurgeon at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital in Cleveland, understands that no teenager wants to return to class after winter break with half a head of hair.
“When my patients come to me, they’re scared and vulnerable, so I do anything that I can to keep them feeling as normal as possible,” she says. “You could say, ‘It’s brain surgery. What’s shaving a little bit of hair going to do?’ But when I talk to my patients, it’s a much bigger deal to them than we give them credit for. Since it matters to them, it matters to me.”
Tomei is one of three alums from the UF College of Medicine to receive this year’s UF Alumni Association Outstanding Young Alumnus Award. She was recognized for strides she’s made in the decade since receiving her medical degree. The impact Tomei leaves on her patients — newborns to high school students, some of whom she follows into adulthood — is a product of her compassionate bedside manner, coupled with an efficient, encyclopedic understanding of neuroscience.
“I love what I do,” the Reinberger endowed director in pediatric neurological surgery says. “It’s the only thing I could’ve seen myself doing.”
The blue walls of Tomei’s office are lined with framed certificates, plaques and photos arranged in neat rows. Hung just to the left of her master’s of public health degree from Harvard University is a photograph of an alligator at UF’s Lake Alice, its eyes and snout rising above the water to greet the viewer. A few inches farther left, a corkboard displays photos and greeting cards from patients.
Tomei, born in Omaha, Nebraska, and raised in Orlando, Florida, recalls receiving a Christmas card from a mother whose son she treated for a prenatal condition.
“In her card, she said she considers me an extended part of her family,” she says. “That feels pretty awesome.”
Tomei draws inspiration from her time as a student at the UF College of Medicine and says she learned about the importance of empathy from former senior associate dean for educational affairs Robert Watson, MD ’69.
“He genuinely cared about our success,” Tomei says. “Seeing the impact that his interest had on me made me want to carry that forward with residents and students I work with.”