No one makes the choice to be a physician without a great deal of thought and reflection. Despite the difficulty and years of intense training and schooling, countless individuals are thankfully drawn to the field of medicine each year. While the reasons why may be highly personal and varied, there are a few common factors that draw talented individuals into the field of medicine. Furthermore, there are common factors that also lead many talented and dedicated physicians to pursue their medical career ambitions by joining the United States Army.
A recent conversation with Dr. Jackie Thompson, who is a colonel in the Army Reserve Medical Corps and an OB-GYN, shed some light on why physicians become physicians and why they choose the Army as a means of doing it. Thompson always knew medicine was going to be her chosen path, thanks mostly to her father, an optometrist and former military member himself. Her experiences working in his office cemented this path. She also realized she had the three things (she feels) it took to be a successful doctor: the ability to interact with people, a firm grasp of science, and a creative spark. Thompson called these attributes a “package deal” when deciding to pursue a medical career. Col. (Dr.) Jackie Thompson with Boe the therapy dog at Combat Operating Base Speicher in Tikrit, Iraq in 2008.
She graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia, but found the next step of getting into medical school wasn’t so easy. A self-proclaimed poor test taker, her Medical College Admission Test scores weren’t as impressive as her counterparts. But her grades and recommendations were. She ended up being accepted to a private medical school. The celebration of acceptance was short-lived once she realized the price tag of the only medical school into which she was accepted. This led to a frantic search for funding for that medical education. That search ended when Thompson researched the Health Professions Scholarship Program through the Army.
“For me, this was a coveted deal and I was off and running,” says Thompson.
While she readily admits the primary motivator in pursuing the opportunity was financial, Thompson also says it was an easy choice because of her father’s service. Her father’s reaction to her commissioning as an Army officer was a motivator which has propelled Thompson to her current position. He simply said he wanted to see her advance in rank. In his last year of life, her father got that wish as she was promoted to colonel in 2011 while deployed in Kuwait. The promotion was recorded so her father could witness the event. Of the ceremony, Thompson says, “I will never regret my years of military service for that moment alone.”
Being a physician in the Army provided more than just a unique and emotional moment between father and daughter, it provided a gateway to practice medicine in a way she never envisioned possible as a young student. Thompson explains that the Army experience got her out of her comfort zone and gave her the chance to do things her classmates could not. She was able to tap into a more well-rounded internship experience with more internal medicine and general surgery time in a military facility. She initially pursued family medicine until her obstetrics rotation. She says, “One good role model can change your mind. It was the power of positive mentoring” that led her to decide to be an OB-GYN.
As for Army medicine in general, Thompson says the Army medical training is exceptional and allowed her to improve her medical skills and motivated her to share her story with others who might consider Army medicine. She explains the Army has cutting edge simulation training when it comes to trauma, which has improved the OB-GYN field dramatically. The uncertainty of every labor experience means a sudden catastrophe can strike and the need to save mom and baby can be an urgent trauma situation. This fact makes trauma experience and blood loss training essential in the OB-GYN field. This focus on trauma and knowledge gained in war-time has revolutionized how physicians in the OB-GYN field train.
Aside from the chance to learn and share trauma knowledge with the civilian sector, Thompson believes the Army is one step ahead in another area of medicine—the balance of career and family. Thompson learned the hard way the difference between how the civilian sector and the military supports and treats female physicians. She left the military to follow the allure of a high-paying OB-GYN civilian job. She says, “In the civilian sector, you are pressured to return to work quickly after having a baby. It is a difficult balance especially with corporate owned practices.” She continues, “For a female physician, there are not a lot of options.” She worked tirelessly in the civilian sector. She says, “I got that high paying job and never saw my kids or family. I was working 100 hours a week. If I had stayed on active duty, I would’ve seen my kids more.” She found the Army had a more family friendly atmosphere and was more nurturing to female physicians and soldiers who want families compared to the civilian world. She pursued the Army Reserves as a source of supplemental income as she quit that high-paying fast-track job and went into strictly GYN medicine. She says, “I chose lifestyle over the money. I would rather spend time with family than make more money.”
Thompson shares her story all over the country and promotes the benefits of the Health Professions Scholarship Program. However, she recently got to thinking about why exactly she pursued medicine to begin with, aside from her father and a firm grasp of science. While she had the typical ‘I want to help others’ desire that most physicians feel in their gut, she knew there was more to it and more in her that the Army nurtured. That turned out to be her creative side. While most people may not associate medicine with a creative art form, Thompson feels the correlation is strongly linked. She explains that there are no cookie cutter situations in medicine. Doctors are blessed with incredible power to change lives, save lives, and help others make the kind of changes necessary for optimal health. That power requires a creative approach to each situation and patient. Thompson says, “I wanted to express the creative side of myself. It (medicine) forces me to use many facets of my brain. Medicine is a creative art and an expression of one’s creative side. It’s up to me to figure out what will help each person. It’s exciting.”
With the much-needed financial support of the Health Professions Scholarship Program, the nurturing and family-friendly environment for Army physicians, and a continued stimulation of that creative spark, it’s easy to see why physicians become physicians and why some choose the Army as a pathway to fulfill that dream.
For more information about a career in military medicine please visit www.healthcare.goarmy.com