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Military service provides 'an accidental gift'

Conquest - Spring 2013

Experience and values shape careers and patient care

By William Fitzgerald

You wouldn’t know unless you asked, but for a select group of oncologists who spent time in the armed forces, there are common traits and take-aways that influence much of what they do. Even years after their service has ended, these attributes still tell something about who they are.

Craig Kovitz, M.D., is happy to see patients
closer to their homes at the Regional Care
Center in the Bay Area.
Photo: F. Carter Smith

Craig Kovitz, M.D., assistant professor in MD Anderson’s Department of General Oncology and stationed at 
MD Anderson’s Regional Care Center in the Bay Area, joined the Air Force after graduating from college to secure funding for medical school. Like other military branches, the Air Force supports education in exchange for active duty service upon completion of a degree.

In September 2001, Kovitz was stationed at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi, serving as the associate program director of the Internal Medicine Residency. It was this position that gave birth to an array of leadership skills that would later be honed in the rugged terrain of Pakistan and Afghanistan as U.S. war efforts ramped up.

“I was given the opportunity to have leadership positions early in my career, and I think that makes you a person with greater perspective,” Kovitz says. “The truth is that until you step into a world with immediate danger, it’s impossible to understand how quickly you mature.”

Service leads to opportunity

In an environment dominated by almost constant conflict, learning to function under stress was one of the keys to survival. In 2002, Kovitz found himself in Jacobabad, Pakistan, as the medical commander and sole physician on a small forward-operating base. Learning to manage with less and forced to meet challenges head-on were situations that would prove valuable stateside.

After returning home and completing his medical fellowship, Kovitz decided to help lead a new MD Anderson venture in establishing regional care centers located around the Houston metro area. Admittedly, engaging in this uncharted expansion was risky, but with his wartime experience, it was just another adventure.

“I could have taken jobs almost anywhere, and, to some degree, it’s a risk in your career to take time and figure this initiative out, but I wasn’t intimated by it,” Kovitz says. “I think military experience gave me the self-confidence to go into the community and start building a new practice.”

Elizabeth Mittendorf, M.D., Ph.D., and Na Qiao, Ph.D.,
research scientist, review the latest results in the study of a
vaccine for breast cancer patients.
Photo: John Everett

Preparation vital to future success

Elizabeth Mittendorf, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Surgical Oncology, found herself in similar circumstances, having joined the Air Force to fund medical school. Immediately following Sept. 11, 2001, Mittendorf was stationed at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C., to backfill positions vacated by Army doctors who deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

During her four years of service, she came to appreciate the rigorous military environment, learning to address different types of traumatic injuries while maturing as a surgeon.

“All of us had trauma training in our residency programs, but, in the military, we dealt with a population of patients who had injuries from IED’s (improvised explosive devices) and other mechanisms we hadn’t seen before,” Mittendorf says.

Ironically, serving at Walter Reed Medical Center was where Mittendorf discovered her interest in breast cancer. The hospital has the largest breast center within the Department of Defense, and, while not large by MD Anderson standards, was a significant opportunity in her career development.

“It was a four-year period of growth and maturation as both a person and a surgeon that prepared me for my subsequent MD Anderson fellowship and faculty position,” she says. “The skills I developed in the military come into play almost every day, and they’ve helped me build my clinical practice and academic program.”

While serving the country opened new opportunities and undoubtedly enhanced their abilities as physicians, Kovitz and Mittendorf are quick to point out that military service also made them better people.

“It’s impossible to spend day after day with people who have sacrificed beyond measure and not have an appreciation for the greater good,” Mittendorf says.

In hindsight, Kovitz found an additional appreciation that he didn’t realize at the time of his service.

“Being in the Air Force was an accidental gift in some ways,” he says. “I joined for a different purpose, but I will tell people for the rest of my life that it was the most important experience I’ve ever had.”

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