Lakewood Ranch’s Maria Shaw stood next to Dr. Michael Van Vliet in awe.
Shaw watched as Van Vliet, a plastic surgeon in the HCA Florida Blake Hospital Burn and Plastic Surgery Center, worked with nurses to help a man who burned the right side of his body and whose hand was barely attached to the rest of his arm after being in a burning car.
Shaw, a senior at the Out-of-Door Academy, couldn’t believe that Van Vliet had the skills and knowledge to be able to heal the man.
The overwhelming compassion she saw from Van Vliet and the nurses throughout her time interning and shadowing the plastic surgeon inspired her to major in biology at Oxford College of Emory University with the goal of becoming a surgeon.
“I don’t want to be confined to just reconstructive plastic surgery, I want to do all of it,” Shaw said. “The people who come in with those types of issues, I feel like they have no hope. (Van Vliet) blows everything you could possibly imagine out of the water and won’t stop until it’s perfect. I see a lot of myself in him, and I want to be able to do that. I want to give people their life back and make the impossible possible.”
Shaw will graduate from ODA May 19 after attending the school since she was in pre-K.
She jokes with people that she’s an “ODA lifer.”
“I kind of brag like, ‘Oh, I’m a lifer, no big deal,’” Shaw said with a laugh. “It’s cool because looking back, I can still remember my pre-K teachers, kindergarten teachers and all those experiences I had at the lower school and then up through middle school and high school. It’s been cool to have the continuity of the same school.”
Shaw said she wouldn’t have her future planned out without ODA’s encouragement to take advantage of internship opportunities and her mother, Ann Marie Davis, who is a nurse anesthetist, suggesting she shadow a doctor at Blake Hospital.
While shadowing Van Vliet for at least 96 hours in 2022, Shaw saw Van Vliet care for several patients. She would stand next to him in the operating room and listened intently as he explained every action he was taking and why.
A woman had come into the burn and plastic surgery center with 80% of her body burned and Shaw watched as they cared for her every day in the intensive care unit.
“Van Vliet was adamant that I see what happened to her and how he was going to help her become (well) again,” Shaw said. “I just see all these people taking care of this poor woman who had just lost everything. The fact they can care for someone who’s not even their own family and they can have that much compassion is so wild. I see a lot of people on a daily basis in general life that don’t care about other people.”
Shaw was able to see the woman walk out of the hospital a few weeks later “perfectly back to normal.”
The internship as well as her passion for biology drives her desire to major in biology in college and become a surgeon.
Shaw said after taking her required courses at ODA, she was able to personalize her education to focus on her love for science and math.
“I feel like since I’ve used that to my advantage, as far as in science and math, I would say I’m in a much better position for college than I would have been if I had just taken the core requirements,” she said.
She loved being in science teacher Mike Newham’s classes throughout her years at ODA.
Newhams said Shaw is exuberant, hard working and driven. He has no doubts she can achieve her goal of becoming a surgeon.
“She’s all in for everything she does,” he said. “I’ll be teaching a class and she’s reacting as if it’s the most shocking, amazing, hilarious thing. You would think that would get exhausting, but it’s so pure and genuine that it’s amazing to see a student have that kind of excitement and interest in teaching. The fact she’s so driven to be a fantastic student is great.”
Shaw often spends her free periods in Newsham’s class working on assignments, talking to Newhams about science and other topics and laughing as he sings along to Jack Johnson tunes.
Her favorite science to study is biology because “it’s something concrete I can relate to other things.” Biology is more than simply finding the answers to equations. At Blake Hospital, she was amazed to see how doctors could replicate people’s skin cells, take different animal skins or carefully take off burned skin to heal patients.
“I find it fascinating that someone can go through that much trauma on their body and still come out looking good as new,” she said. “It’s just wild to me.”
Going off to Georgia for college, Shaw looks forward to expanding her horizons by meeting new people, especially those who have different interests than hers.
“It’ll be cool to learn different viewpoints and understand how people choose the path they’re on,” she said. “I’m excited to focus even more on what I’m passionate about.”