I was really flattered when Melissa and Lexie invited me to participate in the sheMD project! A couple of years ago I was asked to give the Veteran’s Day speech at Mayo Clinic. Since I had no idea what to say, I decided to just tell my own story. Having known many female veterans, my story isn’t especially unusual or unique but my experience changed who I am both personally and professionally. Last summer I took care of a patient in the emergency department who remembered me from my speech. He was a retired navy corpsman who encouraged me to publish it. After much consternation about calling that much attention to myself, I decided to do it. It will appear in the November edition on the JAOA, or click here. What is printed below is an adaptation from that editorial.
Veterans Day never used to mean much to me. It should have; after all, I grew up in a military family. My grandfather served in the Army Corps of Engineers during World War II, and my father is a career Naval aviator and Vietnam veteran but I never thought the word veteran would someday apply to me. I wish I could say that I joined the Navy out of a sense of tradition, duty and patriotism, but that wasn’t it. The truth is, I wanted to become a doctor and did not have the money to go to medical school. When the Navy offered me a commission and full scholarship under the Navy Health Professions Scholarship Program, I jumped at the chance. After all, it was peacetime, and my job would be to practice medicine and to take care of patients, which didn’t seem much different than what I would be doing in the civilian world as a physician.
On September 11, 2001, I was an Emergency Medicine resident at the Naval Medical Center in San Diego. Even though most of my patients were veterans I still didn’t really have an appreciation for what the word veteran meant. But as I watched the plane fly into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon over and over on the television, I knew that what it meant to serve in the military was about to change for me.
When most people think about the Navy, they think about ships, but what many people do not realize is that Navy Medicine also provides healthcare for the Marines. In my decade of service as a naval officer, I never spent the night on a ship because I was attached to the Marine Corps. The Marines are sometimes affectionately referred to as the “pointy end of the spear.” They tend to be the most forward deployed and take on some of the most dangerous missions of the military. Ronald Reagan once said, “Some people go their whole lives wondering if they have made a difference in the world, but the Marines don’t have that problem.”
In Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan), the United States has had the most severely injured casualties since Vietnam. But of the injured, greater than 90% survived—many who would never have survived another conflict. There are several explanations for this: better gear, faster evacuation, and some incredible advances in battlefield medicine that have made great impact in military and civilian trauma practice. The Marines attribute their high survival rates to putting their resources closer to the point of injury. I thought this sounded like a great plan until I realized that as an emergency physician, I was considered a resource.
I left for deployment on my twin girls’ first birthday. At the time, I had four children under the age of five that I was leaving for eight months and to be perfectly honest, nobody wanted to go less than me. But once I was there, everything changed. As the patients poured in with some of the most devastating injuries I had ever seen, I realized several things. I realized what patriotism and courage really mean. I learned it from my colleagues—the doctors, nurses, and corpsmen working alongside me. More importantly, I learned this from my patients, and several of them were still children on September 11th. I may have missed my oldest son’s first day of kindergarten and my twin girls’ first words and first steps but what I had given up paled in comparison to the sacrifices made by my patients. Many of them gave their lives, their limbs, their eyesight, and their emotional well-being. And they gave this voluntarily, in service to their country. I also realized that what I was doing really mattered. I realized I was very well trained and capable of providing the care these patients deserved and that most of them would survive to go home to their families because their “resources were close to the point of injury.” It was an incredible privilege to be their doctor and was the most professionally rewarding thing I will ever do. It was worth it; even though for weeks after I finally returned home my children would shout, “Mommy, mommy, mommy” every time the phone rang, even when I was sitting right there because they didn’t know who I was. That was what I had become to them: a voice on the phone that read Dr. Seuss books from far away.
Had this been World War I, I would not have been able to serve in the military because I am a woman. (2) Had this been World War II, I would not have been permitted to serve because I am an osteopathic physician. (3) I’m grateful to my country and my profession for the progress that has been made. I will always be grateful to the Navy for my education, exceptional training, the camaraderie of my colleagues, and the opportunity to feel like maybe I too have made a difference in the world. As physicians, we are provided with multiple opportunities to rise to an occasion; the Navy taught me to never pass one up.
For those of you who have served in the military in peacetime and in war, thank you for your service to our country. I’m proud to be one of you. And for those of you who have not served in the military, thank you for reading this. Even if you have never put on a uniform, your support of those who have is every bit as important. When I deployed my baby sister quit her job and she and her husband moved in with my husband to help raise my children. It’s not the kind of thing you could ever ask of someone or ever repay. In my book, she is a bigger hero than I will ever be.
Happy Veterans’ Day, with much gratitude, Leslie Simon, DO
1. U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs. https://www.va.gov/vetdata/Veteran_Population.asp Accessed July 18, 2017
2. American Medical Womens’ Association. https://www.amwa-doc.org/wwi-exhibition/ Accessed July 18, 2017
3. Silver, SA. Thanks, but no thanks, how the denial of Osteopathic Service in World War II shaped the profession. J Am Osteo Assoc. 2012;112,93