MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- The staff at Gillette Children's Specialty Healthcare is mourning the loss of one their nurse practitioners who was considered a pioneer in her field.
During Sarah Gutknecht's nursing career, she took dozens of mission trips around the world, assisting in surgeries on children.
In this week's Life Story, we learned she was only 54 years old when a medical crisis ended her own life.
On a daily basis she was teamed up with orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Tom Novacheck.
"She did have a way of connecting with children that a lot of people don't have, even those of us who work in children's orthopedics," Novacheck said. "She used to say that should couldn't believe she got paid to come to work every day at the hospital to play with children."
As a pediatric nurse practitioner who specialized in orthopedics, Gutknecht worked closely with children born with disabilities and those who'd suffered a traumatic injury.
"Oftentimes when I'd open the clinic doors to go in, she'd be sitting on the floor with a child. Playing with them, talking with them," he said.
He says when he started working with Gutknecht in 2003, it was clear she was passionate about her work.
"When I first met her I was struck by her zeal for learning and knowledge," he said.
Gutknecht's affection for children and her love of travel led her to volunteer with Operation Smile, a nonprofit that provides surgeries to children overseas.
She took nearly 30 mission trips to six continents.
"Some of those places that you go, southeast Asia for example, they just otherwise wouldn't get any access to care, a lot of it is cleft lip, cleft palate. A lot of it is disfiguring."
Gutknecht was an athlete, skilled at inline skating, cross country skiing and bicycling --often pulling in her hospital coworkers to join her.
"She just brought that energy and enthusiasm, and it builds and it grows," Novacheck said.
In March 2016, Gutknecht was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She fought the disease for more than a year, but then in June of 2017 she went into hospice care.
"Most people know a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer is not a good one," Novacheck said, adding that Gutknecht's young patients and her colleagues greatly miss her smile and her laughter.
"For our patients, they ask, they wonder, they are sad. Now we say amongst ourselves, she continues on here because of the way we're different," he said.
Gutknecht was 54 years old when she died on August 24.
In her honor, Robichon's Inline Skate School in Minneapolis will be teaching free inline skate lessons in exchange for donations to Operation Smile.
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