Meet Jane Witman, emergency medicine physician
Fri, Jul 9, 2021
While growing up in Pickerel, a tiny rural community in northern Wisconsin, Jane Witman and her siblings constantly heard their parents emphasize the importance of education so their kids would have opportunities they hadn’t had.
“Neither of my parents were educated past eighth grade,” Witman says. “They didn’t have school buses. The closest town to them would’ve been Antigo (19 miles to the southwest).”
Witman’s mother encouraged her to go to nursing school so she’d have a good job in the future. However, Witman never imagined she’d help crack the case of a serial killer while receiving her medical education.
It was the early 1990s. Witman was completing her fellowship in medical toxicology at Clarian Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis.
Less than 2 hours west was Vermillion County Hospital in Clinton, Indiana, a small-town hospital making big news. Its intensive care unit was experiencing an abnormal amount of deaths.
From 1993 to 1995, more than 100 elderly patients died of conditions they hadn’t had before being admitted to the Vermillion County ICU. That was four times the average death rate for the hospital, so the Indiana State Police opened an investigation.
Witman and Dr. R. Brent Furbee, her fellowship director and former medical director of the Indiana Poison Center, were recruited by Indiana State Police to help review patient charts.
“We went through 40, 50 charts of people who died,” Witman says. “We looked at their cardiac rhythms, sequences, charting, and (there was) a pattern.”
It was discovered that during almost every shift worked by Orville Lynn Majors, a licensed practical nurse at Vermillion County Hospital, there was an increase in ICU patient deaths when compared to shifts worked by other nurses.
Majors was tried for poisoning and killing six patients by injecting them with lethal doses of potassium chloride (a mineral supplement) and epinephrine (a drug), causing a patient’s blood pressure to spike, leading to respiratory arrest, an erratic heartbeat and death.
It is believed Majors could have killed more than 100 patients while working at the Vermillion County hospital.
Working on this historic case brought Witman inspiration, along with “great curiosity and enthusiasm towards the ability to analyze and expand that scope of medicine.”
It also helped her improve her medical techniques.
“(The Majors case) taught me to be more observant for my physical exam skills and to listen to cues because sometimes what you think is in front of you isn’t what you think it is,” Witman says. “Poisonings are like that.”
Witman has been practicing medicine for almost three decades. She began working in health care as a registered nurse after completing a two-year nursing program at North Central Technical Institute in Wausau.
One year spent working on a medical-surgical floor was all the time she needed to determine that nursing wouldn’t be her long-term career.
“I was in a very disheartening environment to start your career,” Witman says. “I was with this group of nurses that were quite a bit older … We’re talking the ages of white caps, white socks, getting charts for the doctor … at 21, I thought, ‘I don’t want to do this for the rest of my life. I’ve got energy. I knew I wasn’t ready to stop challenging myself.’”
Witman wanted a challenge. She knew she wanted to do more. So, while still working as a full-time nurse, she completed remote classes through the University of Wisconsin-Superior to complete her prerequisites for medical school. She later moved to Stevens Point, where she earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point.
Witman’s interest in becoming an emergency medicine physician began while earning her medical degree from the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. The scheduled hours and some of what she saw as the “normal lifestyle” of a physician was appealing. Especially because she wanted to eventually have children with her husband, also a physician, whom she met in medical school.
However, becoming an emergency medicine physician wasn’t always the plan.
“Originally, I had visions in my head of doing plastic surgery for children with face deformities and all those things, but I didn’t understand what those doctors did,” she says.
It was the variety that emergency medicine offered and the team bond that’s built when working with the same staff every day that piqued Witman’s interest. She thought toxicology – the study of poisons – would be “super fascinating.”
She completed her residency in emergency medicine and received fellowship training in toxicology at Clarian Methodist Hospital of Indiana, now Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital, in Indianapolis.
Witman joined BayCare Clinic Emergency Physicians in 1996. She’s led many educational seminars on toxicology in the Green Bay community.
“I’ve talked to various groups from nurses to paramedics and to physicians about acute poisoning situations, the opioid epidemic, and bath salts,” she says. “I’ve spoken to law enforcement. I’ve spoken to the district attorney here in town as to what this means for our community. I’ve been kind of a liaison for a lot of law enforcement for the new drug culture that has gone through Green Bay. I’ve done a lot of teaching in the schools here also.”
Away from the job, Witman enjoys fusing glass and maintaining her vivarium, a terrarium that includes tropical plants, lights and mist.
Know what else is in this toxicologist’s terrarium? Poisonous dart frogs.
Dr. Jane Witman is a board-certified emergency physician and toxicologist with BayCare Clinic Emergency Physicians. She sees patients in Green Bay, Oshkosh and Two Rivers.
About BayCare Clinic
BayCare Clinic, baycare.net, is the largest physician-owned specialty-care clinic in northeastern Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It is based in Green Bay, Wisconsin. BayCare Clinic offers expertise in more than 20 specialties, with more than 100 physicians serving in 16 area communities. BayCare Clinic is a joint partner in Aurora BayCare Medical Center, a 167-bed, full-service hospital. Follow BayCare Clinic on Facebook and Twitter.