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WILLIAM LAUER/Lincoln Journal Star
Jess Novotny (left) and Liz Bures with their high school teacher Rick Wallinger in Odell. Bures and Novotny grew up as rural neighbors, graduated together from Diller-Odell High School and are in medical school together at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. They credit Wallinger for their hard-working study habits.
Literally and figuratively, medical students grew up together

ODELL -- It's unlikely that ever before have the seeds of two future Nebraska doctors been sown so closely on adjoining parcels of rural farmland.

Elizabeth Bures, 25, and Jessica Novotny, 24, were at the top of the Odell high school graduating class of 1996, the best of 12 seniors from this community of 345 people 20 miles southwest of Beatrice.

Their homes, just 400 yards apart, sit on the same lands where their fathers grew up as schoolmates. Their mothers graduated as nurses from a Lincoln General Hospital program in the same year.

As children, the medical students at the Univeristy of Nebraska Medical Center had met daily beneath the vines of a mammoth weeping willow on the banks of a creek between their homes. In winter, they rode their sleds into the valley and onto the ice. In summer, the flooded stream created a swimming hole ringed by evergreens.

Today, Bures and Novotny are third-year students entering their downhill stretches toward medical degrees. They recently returned to the Odell classroom of teacher and coach Rick Wallinger to discuss their journeys.

Sitting in their old desks amid the tile and brown panel walls, and as Novotny noticed, "that same smell," they spoke in praise of demanding parents, tough teachers and competitive friends.

Wallinger's American government was a weed-out class at Odell. In the year the two women took it, only two others joined them. The rest went to a study hall.

Every Friday, the foursome fought a contest of Nebraska current events that was played without quarter. Somebody always won, and somebody always earned "unsatisfactory," even when losing by only one question.

"I always ended up being the lowest one," said Bures.

It was a sore spot, and Bures couldn't help sharing her frustration, Novotny recalled.

"If Liz had an opinion, or even a thought," she said, "it came out."

Wallinger often admonished Bures for her nasty glances.

"Liz, stop shooting daggers."

Wallinger was the most infuriating of their teachers. He never gave anyone a break.

And he was their favorite.

"This was how I prepared for medical school," Bures said.

Today, in their clinicals, there is a right or a wrong answer, she said. Doctors give no credit for faking it.

"I wasn't a very good student in high school," explained Wallinger from behind his small metal desk at the front of the classroom.

"Teachers let us slide by, and I thought they were neat," he said. But when he went to college he found the teachers had actually cheated him.

"Just to be here and make friends with the kids and hand out A's and B's, that's not right," he said.

It's not a popular stand.

To give somebody's child a well- earned C minus, "You can make more enemies," he admitted. But that's his job.

After high school, Novotny, who had always known she would become a doctor, went on to major in biology at Doane College. Bures majored in biochemistry at Nebraska Wesleyan. She toyed with becoming a physical therapist, but an adviser told her to set her sights higher.

Both women would soon learn they were among the 123 students accepted into the medical school from among 800 applicants.

Their instruction began with two years of intense academic study led by the nightmarish course of anatomy.

Bures was earning passing grades, but felt as though she was just barely pulling it out. To get through, she made a study pact with Neil Bratney, one of four other medical students at her table.

Across the room, her old friend struggled.

"I wasn't doing very well," said Novotny, who asked if she could join the study group for the last anatomy exam.

"She was at the point I was, but I had found Neil," Bures said. "It was the first time I'd ever seen her that worried."

Novotny had always been the smarter of the two, Bures said.

Together, the group succeeded and made a pact to do biochemistry together.

It wasn't that they weren't smart enough or didn't have the willpower to sit and study for 10 hours a day, Bures said. But on different days, one of them could keep the others on task.

Novotny said that whenever two of them were stumped, the other could always get them through.

For the two women, it wasn't much of a change from how things had been in high school. Each had always tried to do a little better than the other, but they had never wanted the other to fail.

They had become confident in each other by crawling through the fields and grain bins, riding their bicycles in search of beaver dams and arguing with Wallinger.

And their trust in each other had been tested where it counted most.

"Don't tell mom and dad."

In the coming years they'll learn to apply in medical settings what they've learned in classrooms.

It's almost easier for them to shine than it is for the smarter kids who got through their academic studies without really trying, Novotny said.

The lessons of their parents and Wallinger stand behind them, she said.

"We always do to the best of our ability."

Reach Mark Andersen at 473-7238 or

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