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Answering the Call of Duty

New Grads Ship Out for a Different Type of Residency

The "call of duty" is a familiar emotion for many Einstein students, who are committed to patients and their communities. But for young military physicians, it takes on a different meaning.

Nate Brown, during a tour in Iraq
Nate Brown, during a tour in Iraq
Two members of this year's graduating class, Michelle Cunningham and Nate Brown, will soon be putting their medical training to work in the service of our country. Because they had enlisted with or served in the military before coming to Einstein, they received full tuition support and a stipend while completing their medical education. In return, they must complete at least four years of active service following graduation.

Ms. Cunningham, who will be entering a residency in family medicine, will be stationed as a U.S Air Force captain at David Grant Medical Center, on Travis Air Force Base in northern California. At the other end of the state, Mr. Brown, who will be a resident in psychiatry, will become a U.S. Navy lieutenant working at the Naval Medical Center in his hometown San Diego.

Both Ms. Cunningham and Mr. Brown landed their assignments through a process the armed services coordinate that is similar to the National Resident Matching Program. But the new graduates have taken very different paths to their medical careers.

"I wanted to be an astronaut when I was about 10 years old," Ms. Cunningham said. But as a teenager in Minnesota, her family physician inspired her to become interested in medicine.

"He really treated me as an adult, and I wanted to learn more about the field," she said.

A career in flight medicine seemed like an ideal combination. She enlisted in the Air Force a few months before entering Einstein, and served as a reservist during her four years of medical education. Along the way, she got married and became a mother. (Her daughter, Catherine, will be six weeks old at graduation.) Her commitment to the Air Force has never wavered, however.

Michelle Cunningham takes part in a mock mission, to experience the type of training pilots do day-to-day
Michelle Cunningham takes part in a mock mission, to experience the type of training pilots do day-to-day
In fact, Ms. Cunningham sees a synergy between her military service and her training at Einstein.

"My Air Force service definitely influenced me during my education here," she said. "It motivated me, and really gave me focus and perspective."

Einstein, in turn, provided a "great experience, with lots of real-world exposure" that will be useful as Ms. Cunningham begins her clinical work with the Air Force, she said. The "real world" of flight medicine, providing primary care for personnel subject to unusual physical conditions, poses unique challenges.

"In training for flight medicine, you have to fly with the pilots, you have to endure G-forces and some of the same physical demands they do," she said. "It's definitely not like doing medicine in an office every day."

Mr. Brown has already experienced unique challenges in his path to military medicine. "I didn't want to be in a classroom after high school," he said. So he enlisted in the Navy in 1997, and was deployed to Iraq in 2002 as a petty officer in charge of a Navy special boat team. The experience of combat filled him with a desire to help others when he returned to peacetime duty.

"Over time, I just became impassioned to do something for the greater good," said Mr. Brown, who was inducted into Einstein’s chapter of the Gold Humanism Honor Society and will receive a Dean’s Recognition Award in connection with graduation. "After so much violence, the idea of helping people was really exciting to me."

Back in the United States, Mr. Brown completed his undergraduate education in California, then began his training at Einstein with the intent of going into surgery or emergency medicine. But he gradually became more interested in psychiatry, especially as he became more aware of the difficulties fellow veterans were facing after their military service.

"It can be an extremely difficult transition," he said. "There are a lot of psychological injuries that are unrecognized."

Mr. Brown described the transition from naval warrior to physician as one of polar opposites. "I had to go from a life where I used aggression, a life that was physically demanding and dangerous, to one where I used my mind creatively in order to be a healer," he said.

Now he wants to use that experience to help others. And his years at Einstein have provided a great start, he said, noting that his opportunity to serve people in the Bronx was especially gratifying.

"Helping people here who are underserved meant a lot to me," he said. "The experience is a testament to compassion."

Both Mr. Brown and Ms. Cunningham said that service to others is part of the reason for their decisions to enter medicine, to attend Einstein, and to join the armed forces. And they're beginning the next phase of their careers with excitement, gratitude, and maybe just a bit of nervousness.

"It's actually a bit scary to be heading off to San Diego," Mr. Brown said. "But I'm grateful for what I've experienced at Einstein, and I'm looking forward to my work." Ms. Cunningham said, "It's been quite a journey. It's also been fun, and I think there are good things ahead."

Posted on: Friday, May 17, 2013