Green Bay Native Becomes Pageant Prodigy And Medical Marvel

By Joel Waldinger | January 1, 2016


In the Green Bay area and across Wisconsin Tina Sauerhammer isn’t a household name just yet, but don’t bet against it. She first competed for Miss Wisconsin in 2001 after winning the Miss Green Bay Pageant. But even before her beauty took center stage Sauerhammer was making headlines for her brains.

By the time Sauerhammer was done with 8th grade, she had already completed her high school curriculum including calculus and advanced chemistry. She’s also modest saying, “I don’t think I was smarter than the people around me. I think I did have a lot of determination and I had a lot of drive.” That drive and determination helped her enter college 4 years early. She said, her mom and dad had to drive her to school each day because she didn’t have her driver’s license and even got a permission slip from her instructor to miss class so she could take the driver’s test.

At age 18 Sauerhammer graduated from the University of Wisconsin Green Bay with the highest honors and a double major in human biology and human development. Looking back Sauerhammer said, “I know that there are a lot of people who thought I wouldn’t be able to do well in college and to succeed socially. And so I kind of wanted to prove them wrong.” Prove them wrong she did graduating at the top of her class and earning the honor of giving the commencement address.

Sauerhammer will tell you since the age of two she wanted to be a doctor. She even has the pictures to prove it that show her playing doctor with her dad. Sauerhammer said, “No one in my family went to medical school. No one in my family even went to college for that matter.” However, despite all that success at an early age the academic pressures were mounting. She realized this while attending medical school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Sauerhammer said, “By my second year of medical school I felt like I really needed a change of pace. I went from being top of my class at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay to being average in Madison and that was a huge hit for me.”

So in addition to medical school Sauerhammer turned to the Miss Wisconsin Pageant. They had been recruiting her to participate ever since reading about her accomplishments at UWGB. The timing wasn’t right then, but now it seemed like a good option. She won her first competition and was named Miss Green Bay which earned her a shot at Miss Wisconsin. However, she was met with disappointment. Sauerhammer said, “I actually placed third runner-up. So I didn’t win and I had no intention of ever doing it again.” 

That very same night, it’s the heartbreak away from the spotlight that would alter Tina’s life forever. When Sauerhammer was in college her father was diagnosed with a rare auto-immune illness called Wegener’s Disease. As a result, he was put on the kidney transplant list at the University of Wisconsin. On the very night of her Miss Wisconsin Pageant in Oshkosh the call came in. Sauerhammer says, “My parents were in the audience cheering me on. When they went home that evening back to Green Bay there was a message on the answering machine and it was from UW Transplant Center. They had a donor for my father. Only it was too late by the time he received the message. I never knew about that night until after the fact, much later and my last year of medical school my father passed away due to kidney failure.”

The loss of her father hit hard for Sauerhammer. She knew the sacrifices both parents had made in order for her to succeed and now her father was gone. She explains how her dad, Randall, had worked in the paper mill all of his life and her mother, Oki, worked as a seamstress after moving to Wisconsin from South Korea. Her parents met while her father was in the Air Forced stationed overseas. Sauerhammer said, “Everything that they had they invested in me and my education and experiences like cello lessons.  At that point, I was ready to quit, my mom really encouraged me to finish medical school because that is what my father would have wanted.” She was only months away from completing medical school.

Tina’s father had his own dreams of going to medical school but couldn’t afford it. Thoughts to end her dream of a medical career weighed heavy on Sauerhammer.  In honor of her father and at the age of 22, she did became the youngest person ever to graduate from the University of Wisconsin Medical School. Sauerhammer admits she finished but she wasn’t quite ready to move on to the next step of her medical career. So with the moxy that got her into college at the age of 14 and then medical school she focused on one singular mission.  Sauerhammer said, “I wanted to give organ and tissue donation a national voice.” It was her way of honoring her father.

That’s when Sauerhammer decided to do something she thought she would never do again.  She decided to take the year off from her advanced medical studies and compete in Miss Wisconsin. This time she would represent the City of Madison. Sauerhammer was motivated saying, “I didn’t want to become Miss Wisconsin. I wanted to become Miss America so I could give my dad a national voice.” Her platform was organ and tissue donation. She had spent a month with the UW Transplant Team as a medical student and recognized the University of Wisconsin as a national leader in transplants.

Sauerhammer went on to win the title of Miss Madison Area and then it was on to Miss Wisconsin. That night like everything else Sauerhammer excelled and was overcome when she heard, “The new Miss Wisconsin is… Tina Sauerhammer, Miss Madison Area.”  This time she did not leave disappointed and took home the crown. For the next year she traveled the state. Sauerhammer said, “A lot of it was trying to get over that stereotype of a beauty queen. And I’m sort of the anti-beauty queen because I have this education. I’m a physician. For me it was kind of a neat experience to be able to prove people wrong and kind of get rid of their first impressions.”  She was also thankful for the scholarship money the pageant provided, “One of the great things about the Miss Wisconsin and Miss America organization is that it really provided me with scholarship money to pay off my student loans.”

At the Miss America Pageant she would garner a national audience. Sauerhammer took the stage with more than 50 other contestants vying for the crown of Miss America. She introduced herself to the country this way, “I’m Tina Sauerhammer – from Green Bay, Wisconsin, a medical school graduate as a child and even now my favorite game to play is operation.” Her friends and family in the audience cheered her on with a glittered, cardboard “WI” sign they would wave in the air.

Early on in the competition came the moment to announce the top 15. The host Tom Bergeron was reading off the names. He got to number 12 and Sauerhammer’s name still hadn’t been called.  Bergeron said, “Alright we have a perfect dozen now – three names to go.  Let’s add Miss Oklahoma, Kelly Scott.  Sauerhammer patiently waited and it didn’t take long before she heard, “Miss Wisconsin, Tina Sauerhammer.”  As the night went on the hosts couldn’t seem to get enough of this medical student from Wisconsin. During one segment of the competition they proclaimed, ‘Now Tina is mighty, mighty impressive. She’s only 22 and she’s already graduated from medical school. I think that’s better than Doogie Howser. She’s is the youngest ever from the University of Wisconsin to do that.”

During that week at the Miss America Pageant Sauerhammer had a lot of time to reflect on where she had been and where she was going. Sauerhammer said, “Something amazing happened during my year as Miss Wisconsin. I was really able to give a national voice to organ and tissues donation because I was a physician people were very interested in my father’s story. I traveled all over the country for that year as Miss Wisconsin really promoting organ and tissue donation and giving back to my dad.”

And the Miss America hosts acknowledged that accomplishment saying, “I’m sure wherever her father is he’s looking down on her and thinking “that’s my daughter” she looks gorgeous.” And as the night rolled on… so did Tina. From Top 15 the field was narrowed to 10 and Sauerhammer once again heard her name called.  She performed The Swan from the Carnival of the Animals on her cello and dedicated it to her Dad. She was stunning in her magenta evening gown where she was escorted by her mother, Oki for the competition. The two had become very close since the death of Tina’s father the previous year. That’s when reality began to sink in. Sauerhammer said, “I thought as Miss America. I would not be able to see my mother for an entire year. Sauerhammer began to have doubts as to whether this is really what she wanted.

And then it was time for host Tom Bergeron to announce who would be moving on, “In random order tonight’s five Miss American Finalists are…. Miss Wisconsin, Tina Sauerhammer.”

Sauerhammer had made it to the Top 5 but in the back of her head she was still having doubts and said, “That week at Miss America I did some soul searching. I realized I had given a national voice to organ and tissue donation. My main goal in life was to become a physician and I just didn’t want to put that on hold any longer.” At this point, Sauerhammer had made it to the top 3 with a smile on her face Sauerhammer heard, “Second runner-up the winner of a 30,000 dollar scholarship – she is Miss Wisconsin – Tina Sauerhammer.” Looking back she says, “So when I was named second runner up, I was actually relieved I wasn’t named Miss America”

Tina would spend the next eight years chasing her dream. During her fellowship at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Tina helped to make medical history as a member of the team that performed the first full face transplant. Looking back Sauerhammer said, “Words cannot describe what it was like just to see the transformation. He had a 3 year old girl, and that was one of the reasons why he wanted the transplant. He wanted to feel a kiss on the lips from his daughter and it really brought me back to my dad. Being able to give this girl her dad back when I never got that chance.”

The chance to return to her hometown of Green Bay marked another first.  She was the first fellowship trained pediatric plastic surgeon in Northeast Wisconsin.  Sauerhammer works for Prevea Clinic and says after she saw her first cleft lip repair she realized this is what she wanted to do the rest of her life. Today “Doctor” Tina Sauerhammer is giving young Wisconsin patients a chance at a better life. Sauerhammer said, “Really what I’ve learned through all of this is that you can really do anything you put your mind to and what I wanted to do was keep my eye on the goal of becoming a doctor.”

Her training has taken Sauerhammer around the world to help those less fortunate. During Sauerhammer’s fellowship in Washington, DC at Children’s National Medical Center, she was given the opportunity to go on several surgical mission trips.  Sauerhammer said, “This has always been something that I had wanted to do with my career and actually was one of the reasons why I chose pediatric plastic surgery as my specialty so I could go to other countries and be able to serve there.” She participated in the Africa Mercy Ships. It’s an organization that sent her to Togo in West Africa for three weeks. She worked from a ship docked in a local harbor. Sauerhammer said, “We did a lot of burn reconstruction during that mission. But it was incredible to be on a ship and serving just underserved country was amazing.”

Sauerhammer also used her skills as a surgeon to participate in Operation Smile. She traveled to Jordan where she did cleft surgeries.  She said, “It was an amazing experience. We also went to Haiti twice and that was one of my goals when I was at Children’s National Medical Center was to really bring that portion of global health to the plastic surgery department which I was able to do.”  Sauerhammer believes it is important for medical student residents to see what else is out there. She said, “It really brings you back to why you went into medicine in the first place which was to help people because those patients that we take care of in Africa or Haiti or Jordan, they’re so grateful for any little thing that you can do to make them better.”

When asked, Sauerhammer said, “I would love to inspire young women.  Especially given my story, not having growing up with not very much and being able to use my resources and what I had as long as you have determination, perseverance, and goals you can really do anything.  I actually had a recent patient who just finished high school and is going to college and is pre-med.  Her mother actually asked me – Dr. Sauerhammer, can you talk to my daughter about what it’s like to be in the medical field?” Sauerhammer is brutally honest about the sacrifices of time and family to make it happen.  She said, ”I think the main advice I have for young women is that if you want to help people-if that’s the sole reason why you want to be a physician is to help people – then it absolutely is the greatest field in the world. There’s nothing like it. It’s so rewarding to be able to make a difference in your patients and their families. However, it is filled with so many sacrifices.”

And when asked about her role models Sauerhammer didn’t have to think twice. With a large smile she said, “My mother is probably my greatest role model. Coming to this country with the sole purpose of giving everything she has in order for myself to have a better life. She didn’t know the language when she came to the country and just being a strong woman in that aspect.”

Sauerhammer said you might be surprised to learn there are a lot of similarities between being a doctor and being Miss Wisconsin and you maybe even more surprised at which one is harder.  Sauerhammer said, “There are some parts that are actually more challenging being Miss Wisconsin than being a surgeon because you have to be on all the time.  People always asked me if I’m a cheesehead. And I said yes, I am a cheesehead. Are you a Packer fan? Absolutely.”  She said, to be Miss Wisconsin was an amazing experience and it really allowed her to grow as a person. She said, “Believe or not, I’m a really shy person. It just allowed me to speak in front of large audiences and to travel the country and promote something I really believed in and it allowed me to grow and become a better physician.”

Now in her 30s Sauerhammer has already achieved a lifetime of accomplishments. She said, she feels like she should be retiring right about now. These days Sauerhammer has an additional title before her name as she looks to the future with her new husband Kyle.  Sauerhammer says, “A good day is seeing patients who have great results who are happy and who I really felt like I’ve made a difference in their lives and then coming home to my husband, my dog and just relaxing and enjoying just company and friends having a nice dinner and then relaxing.”

But don’t expect her to relax to long or rest on her laurels. Sauerhammer said, “My greatest fear is complacency and so when I look back at all of my accomplishments. I want to look back and say those are great accomplishments but I’m ready to do even bigger and greater things.”  And that may include becoming a household name.

Joel Waldinger

Joel Waldinger

Joel Waldinger is a reporter for the “Wisconsin Life” project and considers a sunset over the “big island” on Manson Lake to be a perfect ending to a day of fishing and fun in the Northwoods. 
2018-01-19T17:52:43-06:00Tags: , , , , , , |

Sign Up Form

Sign Up for Our Bi-Weekly Newsletter

Get your favorite Wisconsin Life stories, meet the crew, and go behind the scenes.

Our Favorite Collections

Storyteller Rodney Lambright II's comic series about the rich relationship between a single father, his young daughter and his retirement-age parents.
For the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, we discover how Wisconsinites experienced the war both at home and on the battlefield.
Ice, cold and winter are an integral part of what it means to live in Wisconsin. "Ice Week" explores the many ways that ice defines us.
Food plays a central part in many holiday traditions. This series honors the foods and meals that make the day.
Escape winter with a look at some of Wisconsin's favorite sports and games.
"Living the Wisconsin Life" is an online series exploring the little things that make living in Wisconsin fun, interesting and meaningful.