Warriors for health

 


They were medical specialists and transport pilots in some of the world’s most hostile regions. They defended the nation in the cyber realm, and faced their own mortality multiple times a day as explosions erupted around them.

Today their service is of a different kind. They are in hospital rooms and clinics, classrooms and research labs. They are among the hundreds of students who seek careers in health professions after years of military service. They are the 64 students currently attending classes at the Health Science Center while on active-duty military scholarships, and the 433 faculty and staff members who also carry the distinction of being military veterans.

“We are fortunate to have many heroes at the Health Science Center. They bring a maturity and unique perspective to their work, having served in developing nations and combat environments,” said retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Byron C. Hepburn, M.D., director of the Military Health Institute, created in 2014 to strengthen partnerships with the military. Dr. Hepburn’s own military career spanned 38 years.

“What we are doing here at the Health Science Center is worthy work and in true service to our fellow man. There’s no greater professional satisfaction than that. No matter what we’re doing at the university, we’re all contributing to that mission.”

Here are some of their stories.

Rudy Gomez

Student, physician assistant studies, School of Health Professions

Rudy Gomez suspects it was a high-powered assault rifle that fired the shots. He was in Habbaniyah, Iraq, serving as a Navy corpsman, an enlisted medical specialist attached to a U.S. Marines infantry unit.

“The round went completely through my thigh, severed my sciatic nerve and partially affected nerves in my calf,” he said. “It paralyzed part of the calf and I lost about 90 percent of the mobility in my foot.”

The year was 2008, and after six years in the Navy, Gomez was medically discharged at Camp Lejeune, N.C.

“While I was being discharged, I was surrounded by military medical personnel, many of whom were giving me career options,” he said. “I knew then that I wanted to become a physician assistant.”

During his service in Iraq, Gomez went on Humvee and foot patrols with Marines doing security checks. Their health and welfare was largely his responsibility—as the unit’s medic, he was the one who would work to keep the Marines alive if casualties occurred.

“I worked as their doc. They call you doctor and they expect you to know everything,” he said. “They expected a lot because I was the only medical guy out there with them.”

His own injury gave him even greater perspective on the role of a health care provider.

“Prior to my service in the military, I did not have the patient perspective,” he said. “In my early service, I assisted those who helped patients. But when I was injured, I saw up close and personal that all providers are different. Some are incredible and outstanding, and unfortunately some are not.

“I got the chance to learn what kind of provider I want to be—the kind who builds trusting relationships with patients.”

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Robert De Lorenzo, M.D.

Professor and research director, Department of Emergency Medicine, School of Medicine

For Robert De Lorenzo, M.D., working in the leading combat support hospital during the war in Iraq was a lot like living through episodes of M*A*S*H.

Working 12-hour shifts usually seven days a week, Dr. De Lorenzo and his colleagues went through calm times when soldiers and civilians weren’t getting hurt, but then frenetic times when the workload surged.

“If you watch old reruns of M*A*S*H, there were boring times in their tents and other times when casualties kept coming into the hospital. That’s not far from the truth,” he said.

Dr. De Lorenzo, professor and research director of the Department of Emergency Medicine, joined the Army in 1994. He followed his father, grandfather and uncles who had all completed stints in the service. He served tours of duty in Iraq in 2005-06, and 2010, and was assigned to the 10th Combat Support Hospital in Baghdad, the busiest trauma center in the world at the time.

“While it was professionally rewarding to lead a team and use the skills of a physician to try and save lives, it was an incredibly sobering experience at the same time,” he said. “Day in and day out we saw shattered young bodies. Many were U.S. soldiers, but of course others were Iraqi soldiers and citizens, even children.”

Veterans, particularly those who have seen combat, provide a unique perspective on the world and clinical care that is particularly useful for a medical student, he said.

“As medical providers, both international law and the mores and ethics of medicine demand that we give the same care to everyone,” he said. “The military medical veterans are proud of having accomplished that.”

Dr. De Lorenzo’s research interest is shaped
by his wartime experience. While in Iraq, he treated numerous trauma patients with injuries to their airways.

“The airway remains an important gap area in care,” he said. “There haven’t been many significant innovations or advances in airway management, and our soldiers and the public need better tools in that area.”

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Nicolas Walsh, M.D.

Department of Rehabilitation Medicine, School of Medicine

Members of the Navy’s Sea, Air and Land teams—better known as SEALs—are almost mythical beings. They are able to thrive in situations where others could barely function. They are the group the U.S. military calls in when the margin for error is nonexistent.

So it is perhaps no surprise that the final leg of their training has become popularly known as “Hell Week.”

“You’re wet and awake for an entire week,” explained Nicolas Walsh, M.D. “You’re basically always in frigid water, and asked to perform at peak levels without fail. Almost everyone who is going to quit, drops out that week.”

By the end of Hell Week, almost 75 percent of each class of candidates has withdrawn.

“We started with 217 individuals, all fully able to complete this training,” Dr. Walsh recalled. “Only 56 finished.”

Dr. Walsh was one of the 56. He served two tours in Vietnam, from 1970 to 1972, as a part of SEAL Team One, and became highly decorated for his service. Dr. Walsh earned two Silver Stars for heroism and a pair of Bronze Stars—among many other commendations.

Navy SEALs in Vietnam packed light, carrying only ammunition and essential weaponry as they became ghosts, working as strike forces to gather—and act upon—intelligence.

Out of necessity, SEALs learn to critically analyze and decisively respond to ever-changing environments and situations. This requires one to think outside the box and adapt, before taking appropriate action.

That training has served Dr. Walsh well throughout his career as professor and chairman of the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine for 26 years.

“SEAL training is one of the hardest challenges one can face both physically and mentally,” Dr. Walsh said. “But not everyone is a SEAL. So the experience is, essentially, no different than one faced by somebody else going through the most difficult trial of their own life. It’s very easy for me to have a great deal of empathy for our patients, whether they’re enduring a spinal cord injury, traumatic brain injury, a stroke or any other kind of physical challenge. Fortunately, we’re able to help a great many people.”

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Roger Weed, D.D.S.

Department of Comprehensive Dentistry, School of Dentistry

Roger Weed, D.D.S., FACD, flew about 1,000 injured soldiers to safety during the Vietnam War as a dustoff pilot, but on one jungle landing, bullets flying through his helicopter turned him into the patient.

“We were going into an area where we always got shot at—a very hostile area close to North Vietnam,” said Dr. Weed, now an associate professor of comprehensive dentistry. “Politically, it was a remote part of the country. The shooters probably didn’t know who we were. They just knew they didn’t want us there.”

The chopper landed, and the patient was loaded for transport. Then the shooting began.

“Probably 30 rounds went into the back of the helicopter and the back of my seat and me,” Dr. Weed recalled. “Nobody else was hit and when I looked at the sleeve of my fatigues, there were bullet holes in it. I couldn’t move my left arm.”

The radial nerve that controls the triceps was severed.

“Army medicine put it back together,” Dr. Weed said. “In 1967, microsurgery was rare but a neurosurgeon at Brooke Army Medical Center did the microsurgical reattachment.”

It took three surgeries and about a year of therapy for him to return to the field.

By 1968, he was again overseas, this time in Korea, where the spy ship U.S.S. Pueblo had been captured by the North Koreans. Now a captain, he assisted with returning the officers and crew to the U.S.

Dr. Weed left active duty in 1969 to attend dental school, but served in the Army Reserves for 34 more years, retiring as a dental corps colonel in 2003.

“Overall, I’ve been able to do two careers at once, both dentistry and the military,” he said.

Dr. Weed’s military experiences strongly shape his approach to dentistry.

“Just as a pilot must have a mission, an objective and route to get there, a dentist must also be well organized and have plans for how things are supposed to be done,” he said. “My flight training has probably been as beneficial as anything.”

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Cherita Johnson

Student, School of Nursing

Cherita Johnson didn’t think she’d ever want to be a nurse. From her mother’s own experience in the field, she knew it was a difficult job. But while serving in the Air Force, she had a chance to experience nursing firsthand, and it changed her life.

“In Afghanistan, I was able to assist with a few things during an attack, and that memory became my driver to get my degree in nursing,” she said.

Johnson, an active-duty servicewoman and undergraduate student, has protected network security at U.S. Air Force installations from South Korea to Afghanistan to Germany for most of her 17 years of service.

But whenever she could, she volunteered in hospitals and found her true passion.

“Caring for someone who can’t necessarily care for themselves, and being a voice for someone who can’t speak for themselves, advocating for the best possible care for them, was rewarding,” she said.

After completing her nursing degree in May, Johnson would like to work in flight or medical evacuation nursing for the Air Force and reach 25 years of service. After she retires from the military, she’d like to open a palliative hospice care management service.

“I enjoy the intensity of what I believe those areas of nursing will bring,” she said. “I think I work well under pressure, and I bring leadership and management skills from my years in the military.

“I am proud to serve every day, and proud that I can protect people’s families.”

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Mara O'Sullivan

Student, School of Medicine

Mara O’Sullivan grew up hearing stories of children playing around landmines—a harsh contrast to her own cheerful sandbox. Her father, an Army officer, and her mother were certified nurse anesthetists and moved their family around the world.

“My father came back with stories such as surgery on a person who had stepped on a landmine in Kosovo,” O’Sullivan said. “At 8 or 9 years of age, I was thinking about global engagements, knowing things other children never consider.”

Her parents instilled in her the ethical responsibility of health care providers to serve all of humanity, regardless of dividing lines. O’Sullivan, a 2014 graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, will serve a minimum of nine years after graduating medical school in 2018 and completing her residency.

“The reason I decided to become a military doctor is you get a chance to serve people in combat, and also their families,” she said.

She also seeks exposure to the broadest range of military medical experiences, from running a clinic or hospital at a new duty station to setting up a temporary hospital while on deployment.

“When you deploy for military medicine especially, you treat anybody who comes through your doors,” she said. “If they’re locals, insurgents or children who just happen to be nearby, you treat them as you treat our own.

“We use the same resources on everybody regardless of nationality or sides of the political war. Your service is to be a doctor and an officer, but you don’t need to hold a gun to do that. I don’t need to compromise my ethics to do that.”

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Jeff Marrs

Student, School of Dentistry

Jeff Marrs learned the value of restraint while serving as commander of a U.S. Army “breach” platoon in Anbar province, Iraq. While clearing a path to a suspected terrorist camp, Marrs faced a decision of whether to blow up a wall that blocked entry to a village.

They hadn’t encountered enemy fire. He decided not to use explosives.

“We went around the wall, still not receiving any enemy contact,” he said. “On the other side, at the site where we were going to detonate, was a room full of women and children. For me it was a consideration of restraint. I consider that to be a very smart decision.”

Marrs was 24 when he assumed command of his first platoon in April 2003. Operating out of an Army base in Mosul, Iraq, the platoon provided support and stability to local nationals. This included patrols to counter attacks by improvised explosive devices.

“I vividly remember three or four enemy attacks,” Marrs said. “Thankfully we didn’t take any wounded or killed.”

The platoon also worked to bolster the economy. Marrs was asked to run a propane facility in northern Iraq. The platoon coordinated with the locals to increase production—important because propane is the primary source of cooking for the people.

In 2004 he returned to the U.S., but deployed again to Iraq in September 2005 as a battle captain, coordinating emergency responses 10-14 hours a day for 10 months. Each day brought six to eight enemy attacks.

He left active duty in 2008 and entered the Texas National Guard. Two years later, he was sent to Afghanistan. It was this deployment that changed the course of his career.

“I made the decision to become a dentist on my third deployment,” Marrs said. “I met a deployed dentist, Jeff Aycock, who was assigned to Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. He said, ‘You have great teeth, you’re a West Point graduate, you’ve been to Ranger School, you’ve had multiple years of experience, you should be a military dentist.’ I kind of laughed it off, but saw him treating all the multinational soldiers, and that encouraged me to consider it.”

Marrs entered the School of Dentistry in 2013. His scholarship requires him to return to active duty after graduation.

“When I graduate in 2017, I will return to the military as a dentist and pursue an orthodontics residency, and then hopefully continue to provide excellent care to our soldiers, spouses and their children,” he said.

“As I’ve done throughout my career, I will try to be at the point where I can provide the most benefit to the largest amount of people.”

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Ryan P. Gilley

Student, Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences

In November 2006, Ryan P. Gilley was a combat engineer who had spent almost a year in Baghdad clearing roadside bombs while trying to reconcile the dissonance between war and the smiles of Iraqi children delighted with the soccer balls he and other soldiers gave them.

After three years of active duty, Gilley yearned for civilian life. In January 2007, within two months of returning from Iraq, Gilley was sitting in college classrooms, immersed in science.

“I like to solve puzzles and fix things, and so I think inherent in that is kind of an enjoyment of things that are somewhat mysterious,” he said. “You know there are these microbes all over but we can’t see them. You can’t see the bacteria and the viruses. You have to have equipment that helps you find them.”

Gilley began doctoral studies in microbiology and immunology in 2012 and in April defended his dissertation. He will begin a post-doctoral fellowship this summer on the effect of streptococcus pneumoniae on the heart and how the heart cells die in response to the bacteria. Researchers found the bacteria can create holes in the cardiac tissue of mice.

“My dissertation has been based on further characterizing what happens and what the bacteria require, the protein requirements that the bacteria need in order to get into the heart to cause these little lesions,” he said.

As he works toward his goal of a faculty position and a lab of his own, Gilley said his time in the military seems both distant and fresh.

“I don’t regret at all my time in the Army,” he said. “I had a good time and there were bad times. That was not the life I wanted to have but I don’t regret doing it.”

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