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From the hog farm to the operating room: Unlikely journey for Milwaukee brain surgeon

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From the farm to the operating room, a Milwaukee brain surgeon credits his past to helping him get to where he’s at today.

“I grew up in west Michigan. My dad is a pig farmer. I grew up on a hog farm,” said Dr. Nathan Zwagerman. “I do minimally invasive surgery. I do keyhole surgery so I do it through small incisions, either behind the ear or through the eye or through the nose and so we do these small operations to take out pretty large tumors.”

He said it was early on in life when he realized farming wasn’t for him.

“I was the oldest of four boys and, over the course of time, I realized that pig farming wasn’t for me, to the disappointment of my father. My dad and my grandfather farmed together and I was being groomed to take over the farm when I grew up but that wasn’t something I was interested in and so I took my first opportunity I could to get out of the farming scenario,” said Nathan.

Back on the farm, his parents Cheryl and Thomas Zwagerman said they’re happy he found his fit.

“None of us went to college so, even the idea of going to college, he was kind of a break the mold kind of person,” said Cheryl.

Nathan said it’s the hard work he put in growing up that motivated him to become the surgeon he is today.

“As different as those worlds are, they’re largely the same. I grew up and I worked seven days a week,” said Nathan. “And now this is just my life. I work every day. Not always at the hospital but I’m always working, to my wife’s disappointment. This is how I’ve always been. This is the world I’ve always known.”

“Sometimes I wonder if he worked harder than a farmer. When I went to visit him one time he had to get up at 4 o’clock in the morning and do rounds and sometimes he doesn’t come back until 8, 9 o’clock at night. So I told him he should have been a farmer since he’s working that many hours anyway,” said Thomas.

“Whenever my dad gets together with his friends and they ask what his oldest son is up to he tells them, ‘He couldn’t cut it on the farm so he went into brain surgery.’ He gets a lot of mileage out of that joke but, at the same time, it’s funny and true. He is quite proud of what we’ve accomplished here and he’s quite proud of me,” said Nathan.

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