Marching into Medicine

Five Tufts University School of Medicine graduates reflect on their military service
Man speaking at a podium. Whether by choice or conscription, hundreds of Tufts University School of Medicine graduates have served with the U.S. Armed Forces over the school’s 126-year history.
Working as a doctor in the Vietnam War “changed my perspective: I saw things I never would have seen in the U.S.—malaria, dengue fever, snake bites, physical trauma—and it gave me a sense of responsibility,” said Steven Phillips, M66, A89P.
October 4, 2019

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Whether by choice or conscription, hundreds of Tufts University School of Medicine graduates have served with the U.S. Armed Forces over the school’s 126-year history. In 1943, the middle of World War II, four out of five medical students wore either Army or Navy uniforms, their education supported by the government.

Graduates continue to serve today. In the last ten years alone, sixty graduates have matched to residencies in the military. Many students have taken advantage of the Health Professions Scholarship Program, begun in 1972, which offers scholarships in return for a service commitment to the Army, Air Force, or Navy following graduation.

We caught up with five alumni to learn more about what it’s like to sacrifice civilian status as a young doctor to embark on a life-altering adventure of medicine through service. 

Nicholas Panarello, M19

Lieutenant, U.S. Navy; orthopaedic surgery resident, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center

“Military medicine is largely orthopedic medicine, with young, healthy people getting injured while working out or participating in training exercises,” said Nicholas Panarello, M19.From the start of college I knew I wanted to go to medical school. The Navy Health Professions Scholarship Program allowed me to avoid the stress of taking out loans while pursuing my goal of becoming a physician. Plus, there were a couple of influential people in my life who I respected and looked up to who told me that I would fit well into a military environment.

During medical school, the military commitment was fairly light, considering—I think they recognize that medical school is tough enough. I was still able to choose my preferred specialty and apply for it. The Navy has the final say, but the application process is similar to that of the civilian sector. If you’re a competitive applicant, you have a better chance of securing your preferred specialty and training location. I’m specializing in orthopedic surgery, and it’s a phenomenal opportunity. Military medicine is largely orthopedic medicine, with young, healthy people getting injured while working out or participating in training exercises.

For residency, I’ll be training at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where much of the wounded warrior care happens. I’ll take care of people who have suffered traumatic injuries and help them get back on their feet. It’s an experience I wouldn’t have anywhere else.

Neel Shah, A08, M12

Major, U.S. Army; officer in charge, anesthesiology, Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, Germany

“I think one thing that distinguishes military medicine from the civilian medical community is that in the military you get a chance to be a leader quickly and effect immediate change,” said Neel Shah, A08, M12.When you sign up for the Health Professions Scholarship Program, you essentially make a 1:1 commitment; for a year of school, you owe the military a year of service after residency. I had almost no contact with the Army during med school, aside from officer basic training—which is nothing like the basic training you see in the movies; it’s geared towards physicians and dentists—and then during two audition rotations for residency the third and fourth years.

After completing your internship, you’re often asked to do a tour as a general medical officer—essentially, primary care for a battalion of soldiers—and during that time I was deployed to Liberia for the Ebola crisis. Despite learning about it in medical school, you never think you’ll be involved with something like Ebola in real life.

There were a host of other illnesses, both common and uncommon, but things I never would have thought I’d personally see or manage. But Tufts had pushed me to not put my blinders up, to think about the unexpected, to make a good differential diagnosis. I took that lesson to Liberia.

In Liberia, I was Officer in Charge of the Headquarters Aid Station. I think one thing that distinguishes military medicine from the civilian medical community is that in the military you get a chance to be a leader quickly and effect immediate change. It’s an incredible opportunity and an asset for whatever you end up doing later— it’s something I really like about the military that I wouldn’t have initially expected.

Lynda Vu, M93

Colonel, U.S. Air Force; director, Banholzer Clinic, Air Force District of Washington

“I didn’t plan on staying in the military past that four-year commitment—but I’ll be retiring in October and it’s been twenty-three years,” said Lynda Vu, M93.My dad, who had served in the Navy, mentioned I could join the military to pay for medical school. And I laughed, thinking, ‘Why would I ever want to join the military?’ So I didn’t. I was a civilian during medical school. But my first year of residency a recruiter came to talk about the benefits of joining the Air Force, and I met another resident who had joined and was talking it up. So I joined to get some extra money to pay for my husband to finish his degree.

After my four-year Air Force commitment, I was looking for jobs in both military and civilian programs, and I was ready to take a civilian job—but I got a call that a position at the David Grant Medical Center at Travis Air Force Base opened up in California, so that was it. My first several assignments I worked as a family physician in staff and faculty positions, taking care of military families and training family medicine residents.        

Several years into my career, I decided to launch into aerospace medicine and completed a second residency in 2013. I love it because it’s one of the most operational fields of medicine in the Air Force. Flight surgeons work with the pilots and air crews who fly missions, providing primary care, fatigue management, travel medicine, and preventive health.

Now I’m the director of a special mission clinic called the Banholzer Clinic. We take care of Presidential Support aircrew: the pilots, flight attendants, communications and security forces, and other support personnel. We’re a special clinic and one of a kind for the Air Force, so it’s pretty neat. I didn’t plan on staying in the military past that four-year commitment—but I’ll be retiring in October and it’s been twenty-three years.

Nancy Major, M88

Captain, U.S. Army (retired). Professor of radiology and orthopedics, University of Colorado School of Medicine

“Overall, I was delighted with Army medical training; the pathology was unique, with some military combat injuries and unusual conditions,” said Nancy Major, M88. “Active duty and dependent families are extremely grateful for the care they receive through the military.”My first year of med school, a financial aid advisor told me that if I continued to borrow money at the rate I was, I’d ultimately be forced to choose a specialty based on the ability to pay back my student loans, rather than a specialty I preferred. I said, ‘Well, then I want to drop out.’ So she encouraged me to consider the military. The recruiting office was close, so that afternoon I went to inquire about the application process, not expecting an interview. The Air Force captain said, ‘We closed our applications yesterday—but I think the Army is open next door.’ So I walked in, sat down, and that day I joined the Army.

From there it was a very positive experience. During basic training I was assigned to a base on the Monterey Peninsula. We had every weekend off, I saw California—I was spoiled. I did my internship at Letterman Army Hospital in the Presidio of San Francisco. Overall, I was delighted with Army medical training; the pathology was unique, with some military combat injuries and unusual conditions. Active duty and dependent families are extremely grateful for the care they receive through the military.

Looking back, financially the Army was a smart decision. But my dad also served in the reserves for a really long time, and we grew up with duty and honor emphasized in our household. I tend to think that even if I hadn’t been in the Army for medical school, I would have been in the reserves. It still would have happened—just in a different way.

Steven Phillips, M66, A89P

Lieutenant colonel, U.S. Army (retired). Former cardiac surgeon, Iowa Heart Center; former deputy director for research and education and associate director for the Division of Specialized Information Services, National Institutes of Health

I graduated from Tufts in 1966 and went to Brooklyn to intern at a busy hospital. But in the spring of 1967 I was drafted. I’d broken my leg skiing, so they deferred me, and I was re-drafted after a year of surgical residency. I was with an infantry unit in Vietnam, out in the field, carrying a rifle, working in trauma and evacuation. As a doctor, it changed my perspective: I saw things I never would have seen in the U.S.—malaria, dengue fever, snake bites, physical trauma—and it gave me a sense of responsibility.

Once I was on a convoy on Vietnam’s Highway 1, watching tanks going by. I looked up and saw Ron Cwik, one of my Tufts classmates, right on top of the tank. Once I was at a hospital in Da Nang and I ran into my Tufts classmate James Conway, who was chief of anesthesia. I said, ‘Jim, we only had one or two years of training!’ He said, ‘Well, they sent me to anesthesia school for six weeks, and here I am.’

In 1968 I was in a city called Hue that was totally devastated from the Tet offensive, one of the biggest battles of the war. Hospitals and clinics were destroyed; medical personnel were killed or they’d fled. I was sent down to help build a new hospital. We did major surgeries—even though I was only partially trained, I was better than no one. Two years ago, I went back to Vietnam as a civilian and visited the hospital. Now it has 1,000 beds and does heart transplants. They welcomed me with a red carpet and I spent a day making rounds. It’s one of many experiences I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t been in the military during that horrible war.

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