Brennan Named 2018 Distinguished Alumnus
Retired Ophthalmologist Advancing Global Professionalism
By Catherine Duncan
Growing up in Wisconsin, Michael W. Brennan’s father wanted him to be a priest. His mother, who knew this wasn’t the best vocation for their energetic son, was afraid he would end up a farmer. As a farmer’s daughter, she knew her son wasn’t cut out for the tractor.
When his mother asked about his career interest, he told her he wanted to be an astronaut. Reading about astronauts Frank Borman and Deke Slayton, his mother contacted their congressman. “Then she told me to sign the military academy letter of intent,” recalled Dr. Brennan, Class of 1978. “That is how I went to West Point, by accident.”
After graduating from West Point, he headed to the war in Vietnam. “Uncomfortable with guns, I went into Army Aviation and flew for the CIA and other security agencies,” he said. After his tour in Vietnam ended, he still harbored dreams of being an astronaut. The Army allowed him to earn a master’s degree in aeronautics and astronautics from Stanford University and assigned him to West Point to teach earth and space science. “Teaching wasn’t my calling either,” he said.
Continuing his correspondence with NASA, it was suggested that a medical degree might help his entry. Medical schools in home state Wisconsin were troubled by his “advanced” age of 30, but Betty Compton, registrar for the UT Medical School at San Antonio, urged him to become a state resident and apply at the relatively new medical school in Texas. Still unseen to this day, Texas property purchased as a gullible Army lieutenant was the key, and Ms. Compton invited him for an interview with Dr. Carlos Pestana.
“I recall the personal and professional presence of both Ms. Compton and Dr. Pestana vividly as well as the sunshine of San Antonio. I finally felt that a career decision was not accidental. Helen, our four children and later my mother found San Antonio and the entire medical school community to be a great home for four years,” Dr. Brennan said. “The faculty was very personal while professional and seemed to encourage a friendly competition in the process of enjoying medicine and patient care. I personally enjoyed acquainting with the remarkable diversity in the family of classmates, so different from my Army days.”
San Antonio days
Beyond the San Antonio Spurs, one of his fondest memories is being on the city league softball team with classmates. “We played for several seasons and as an older guy, it was fun to be running around with the jet set. With the intensity of medical school, you need a bit of release; you can’t study all the time. I loved the camaraderie and getting to know my classmates better. The softball players are still our best physician friends.”
Dr. Brennan said the “other beauty of San Antonio was the fortuitous circumstance of being able to do my internship and residency at Brooke Army Medical Center. During medical school, I did a rotation in ophthalmology at Brooke. While most outcomes in my life were accidental, my choice of ophthalmology was not. I knew it was perfect for me.” The family remained in San Antonio for eight years—four for medical school and four for his internship and residency. “We were so fortunate to have eight stable years during the children’s grade school years. We treasure that time.”
Then the Army sent him to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where he served as chief of surgery. “It was the largest Army base in the U.S. so there were injuries and many retiree cataracts,” he said. “I enjoyed this opportunity both professionally and for our family’s stability.”
After four years at Fort Bragg and a total of 20 years in the Army, he chose to retire from the military. “We moved to Burlington, North Carolina, where I found great partners to join in private practice. I enjoyed community ophthalmology for 30 years before retiring in 2016.”
During his time in private practice, he became involved in organizational medicine and professionalism. “We must seek to serve patients better by having a strong unified physician community that works together. I finally found a leadership passion, maybe fostered at West Point, that seemed to fit with our global ophthalmology structure.”
Dr. Brennan said that West Point classmate Lt. Gen. (Ret.) James “Jim” B. Peake, M.D., then serving as U.S. Army Surgeon General, asked him in 2003 to go global.
“After the Battle of Baghdad, Jim asked me to engage face to face with the Iraqi doctors who were seeking professional/organizational relationships with the outside world. Happy to return to the Army, I enjoyed three months traveling around Iraq making friends and creating connections with Iraqi physicians and U.S. counterparts.”
In February 2004, Dr. Brennan took 20 U.S. doctors from different specialties back to Baghdad to meet with physicians there. Ultimately, the State Department funded 40 medical/surgical training sessions across Iraq and extended these professionalism enterprises to conflicts in Afghanistan and Libya. Responding to natural disasters as well, the physician volunteers assisted in Haiti and Japan.
Dr. Brennan is now working with young physicians in Central Asia and Sub-Saharan countries, pursuing earlier integration and empowerment of the Next Generation. “We are trying to get the older physicians to see this is good for everyone and for the profession. In retrospect, I truly feel that the ‘total family’ foundation in medicine that our family enjoyed in San Antonio has been my lasting compass for community and national professional service.”
As part of his global endeavors, Dr. Brennan currently serves as International Envoy and on the Global Advisors Committee for the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO). In 2009, he served as president of the AAO and was Secretary for State Affairs from 1997 to 2004. Dr. Brennan is a past president of the North Carolina Society of Eye Physicians and Surgeons and is a member of many international ophthalmology societies. He did interview at NASA for Mission Specialist in 1980 but was not chosen. Dr. Brennan is looking forward to an outer space flight with Virgin Galactic in 2020.
Dr. Brennan was selected as the 2018 Distinguished Alumnus for the Long School of Medicine. He was presented the award at a 50th anniversary reception, which featured prior winners and founding faculty, prior to the President’s Gala on Sept. 29, 2018.