Bernal_Nicole_720x720“My goal is to establish Ohio State as the premier burn program in the state,” explains Dr. Bernal. “I want us to be the first place considered for transport, referrals and ongoing care. We’re already a Verified Burn Center based on the rigorous standards set by the American Burn Association—and we intend to do everything necessary to maintain that status—but we have even more to accomplish.”

Dr. Bernal describes the range of challenges that can be unique to burn patients. “The physical burn is only one aspect of the damage,” she explains. “The pain and scars can be overwhelming, but there’s also a mental health aspect that has to be addressed. And now during COVID-19, patients have to face all of this without the physical presence of family and friends. That makes our comprehensive approach all the more important.”

“Surgery is just the first step,” Dr. Bernal says. “After that comes a truly lasting relationship with my patients and their families, which is what I value most about my job. My partnership with other experts, like nursing, rehab specialists, physical therapists, psychologists, social workers and case managers, is what allows us to take what started as a tragedy and transform it into as positive a life experience as possible. That takes a team, and it’s incredibly rewarding to help patients return to life feeling physically strong and emotionally confident.”

As director, Dr. Bernal is hoping to expand or develop new services for the Burn Center, including support groups, telemedicine platforms that reduce costs but expand geographic reach, burn prevention education and programs for first responders and other health care professionals to improve burn management. Her advanced burn care research focuses on innovative treatments using stem cells, spray-on skin or new dermabrasion techniques, such as bromelain, which is derived from pineapple cores. “Traditional burn surgery techniques rely on skin grafts,” she explains. “But as we develop more industry-based research, we’re discovering these new techniques that allow for quicker recovery and more precise removal of the burn without harming healthy skin.”

Dr. Bernal joined Ohio State in 2020 after nearly 10 years at University of California, Irvine, where she was acting director of the Burn Intensive Care Unit, as well as departmental director of information technology for the Division of Trauma, Burns and Surgical Critical Care. Prior to that she worked for Shriners Hospital of Cincinnati, University Hospitals of Cincinnati and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.

After receiving her medical degree from Case Western Reserve University, Dr. Bernal completed a general surgery residency at Saint Louis University Hospital, a pediatric surgery research fellowship at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, an adult and pediatric surgical critical care fellowship at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin and Froedtert Hospital and a burn surgery fellowship at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.

Dr. Bernal is a first-generation American—her dad is from Jamaica and her mom is from the Netherlands—and she’s the family’s first physician, both points of significant pride. She adds that she was born and raised in Dayton and still has family there. “Ohio State is like a homecoming for me,” Dr. Bernal says. “And as a lifelong Buckeye fan, I can’t wait to share a game in the Horseshoe with my kids.”