An oncologist and U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel reflects on the unexpected twists and turns of his career–including the inspiration for his work
As a doctor, Bradley McGregor, A00, M04, knew he’d have to make life-and-death decisions occasionally. But he never expected he’d be making them for a team of colleagues in the course of a routine workday.
That’s what happened, though, in 2013, when the Afghan hospital where he was stationed faced a bomb threat.
While many military physicians served in Afghanistan as doctors providing direct patient care on U.S. bases, McGregor was instead deployed on a NATO mission as a medical advisor. Stationed in the center of Kabul, he would leave the U.S. compound every day to mentor medical staff in the Afghan National Army. On the day of the bomb threat, McGregor—a major in the U.S. Air Force at the time—was the officer in charge of his unit. That meant he had to choose whether or not to risk exposing his team to the potential threat by taking them to the hospital to push ahead with their mentoring work.
“I decided, ‘No, we’re not going to go,’” he recalled. “I didn’t want to be responsible for taking the team there when there was a bomb threat, and I determined that the work we were doing could be delayed until it was safe.”
Or, at least, until it was safer.
During the entire six months he spent in Kabul, McGregor recalled, “there was a constant sense of unease.” In fact, a year after he left Afghanistan, there was a major attack on that hospital. “It was so strange to know I had been there,” McGregor said. “You just never knew what could happen.”
Amplifying all that unease was what was required of McGregor to simply get to work each day. A helipad separated the hospital from the compound where he lived. Although the area was patrolled by Canadian forces stationed there, the base wasn’t secured by American or United Nations forces; McGregor had to be prepared at all times for a possible Taliban assault or a “green-on-blue” assault (one in which Afghan security forces mistakenly fire upon allies).
So, each day when he left his compound, he had to cross the helipad, and knock on a door at the hospital to gain admittance. As part of that journey, he put on body armor, a helmet, and an assault rifle, which he wore throughout the day. “That was challenging,” he said, “because you don’t expect to be carrying assault rifles as a doctor.”
“To serve as a combatant in hostile territory—I had a lot of internal struggles about that. But ultimately, I approached it the same way I did my medical training... I learned leadership skills, I made hard decisions. And I’m grateful for everything I learned.”
Inside the hospital, McGregor and his fellow medical advisors coached Afghan medical personnel on all aspects of medical care. “The commander of the hospital, the ICU staff—we met with anyone who needed our help,” he said. “One time, for example, I explained to an emergency doctor the need to park ambulances alongside each other and not behind one another so that you don’t have to move the vehicles to take each patient out. It was often practical information we were sharing in our work with doctors, nurses, techs, systems people—everyone.”
Flexibility Along the Way
Now the director of clinical research at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s Lank Center of Genitourinary Oncology in Boston, McGregor started out his career thinking he would take a very different path from the one that ultimately led him to that hospital in Kabul.
He was born in California, the son of an Air Force officer. His family moved often, depending on where his father was stationed. Then, when McGregor was ten, his father was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
“Everything changed so suddenly,” McGregor recalled. “My dad went into the hospital and four days later he was air-vacced from where we lived in Nebraska to the military medical center in San Antonio.”
McGregor’s father’s story is a rare happy one: normally—even now, McGregor explained—a diagnosis of acute leukemia does not end well. In this case, it did: his father survived and remains alive more than 30 years later, and McGregor was inspired by that experience to become a doctor and to join the Air Force himself. Tufts’ Bachelor’s/MD Early Assurance program held particular appeal for him. Accepted into it as a sophomore, McGregor attended Tufts University School of Medicine and expected that his next move would be a residency and subsequent fellowship at a Boston hospital.
Instead, the Air Force sent him to San Antonio. “When I got orders to go, I felt that I would never have the career I wanted,” McGregor said. “But early on, I realized that there are different paths to the same goal. I knew I had to be flexible. So, I decided to take advantage of any opportunity that arose.”
In that spirit, after completing his postgraduate training at San Antonio’s Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences in internal medicine, medical oncology, and hematology, McGregor served as a faculty member there, was a director for the hospital’s one-year internship program, chaired its Cancer Care Committee, and sat on the Institutional Review Board as a scientific member.
“If you asked me would I do it all again: yes,” McGregor said. “Taking advantage of opportunities along the way laid a foundation that eventually got me where I wanted to go. I wanted to excel at being an oncologist and a clinical researcher—but I had to take each step.”
One thing McGregor has learned from the military—both while growing up in an Air Force family and during his own service—is that, as he put it, “there are things in your control and things not at all in your control. You have to focus on what you can control, and other elements can fall into place from there. It’s about flexibility.”
Now a father of three–and an Air Force lieutenant colonel–McGregor looks back at his time in Afghanistan as a significant learning opportunity. “I had a lot of concerns before I went,” McGregor said. “When I joined the military as a physician, I’d assumed that I would be a noncombatant. To serve as a combatant in hostile territory—I had a lot of internal struggles about that. But ultimately, I approached it the same way I did my medical training. It turned out to be an opportunity. I learned leadership skills, I made hard decisions. And I’m grateful for everything I learned.”