military medicine

How military service prepared these physicians for civilian patient care

“The military expands the scope of your career exponentially,” says Lt. Col. Darren Sommer, DO, MBA, MPH.

Editor’s note: This story was updated on Nov. 10, 2021.

AOA Immediate Past President Thomas Ely, DO, and Lt. Col. Darren Sommer, DO, MBA, MPH, took different paths to military service in different eras, but their stories run parallel in many ways.

Both entered the military at a young age without future designs of becoming a physician, and both were given eye-opening opportunities to discover medicine there that greatly impacted their lives. They even both spent some time at the same domestic base: Fort Bragg in North Carolina.

In recognition of Veterans Day, The DO is honoring osteopathic physicians who have served in the military by sharing the stories of two DOs who found their paths to medicine through their time in active duty, then practiced in the service.

Through their stories, the two physicians discuss how serving helped them develop as physicians, the contrasts between military and civilian care, and the lessons they took from the military back to civilian care.

“That responsibility truly prepared me.” Thomas Ely, DO

For Dr. Ely, medicine was a “dormant” interest of his when he joined the Army in the early 1970s. Thanks to the mentorship of David G. Doane, MD, the first family medicine consultant to the Army Surgeon General, Dr. Ely found his calling in the profession.

Dr. Ely was assigned to Dr. Doane’s division as an administrative officer, and the two became lifelong friends as they worked together to integrate the principles of family medicine into the Army Medical Department. Dr. Doane encouraged Dr. Ely to pursue medicine. With his mentor’s help, Dr. Ely landed an interview at Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences College of Osteopathic Medicine, where he was accepted and started training to become an osteopathic physician.

Dr. Ely

Before medical school, Dr. Ely’s time in the service included two one-year combat tours of duty in Vietnam as a commissioned officer in the Medical Service Corps, where he worked as a medical evacuation pilot. Regularly flying a helicopter with patients inside, many times in darkness and under enemy gunfire, gave Dr. Ely valuable experience that prepared him well for the pressures of civilian medicine.

“As an aircraft commander, you are responsible for the safe completion of the mission, and most importantly ensuring the safety of the patients, crew, and aircraft,” Dr. Ely said. “The aircraft commander makes all decisions. That responsibility truly prepared me for my future responsibilities as a physician making critical medical decisions.”

Following medical school, Dr. Ely re-entered the military as a commissioned officer in the U.S. Army Medical Corps. His first assignment following residency was to establish a family medicine clinic for troops and military families at Fort Campbell in Kentucky. After setting up policies and practices from scratch, Dr. Ely’s clinic practiced full-service family medicine, including obstetrics and pediatric care. That experience also proved to be valuable, especially when he retired from the Army in 1988 and went into private practice.

“Military medicine practice at that time was slightly ahead of civilian practice in some ways, like its early adoption of peer review for medical staff,” Dr. Ely said. “After I retired from the Army, I went into practice with my medical school classmate who I had served with, and we were ‘ahead of the game’ in setting up policies, procedures and practice patterns in our clinical practice because of our Army practice experience.”

“Nothing ever seemed overwhelming to me after combat.” —Darren Sommer, DO

Like Dr. Ely, Dr. Sommer did not envision medicine in his future when he joined the Coast Guard at the age of 19. His undergraduate experience wasn’t working out for him, and serving in this capacity was closer to his longtime interest in law enforcement, he said.

When he arrived at his first tour of duty in St. Petersburg, Florida, he was told that his service unit needed a volunteer to complete EMT training in order to have someone on hand with emergency medicine knowledge during missions.

“The Coast Guard recruiter had told me, ‘This is going to be what you make of it; if you get a chance to go to a class or school, don’t pass it up,'” Dr. Sommer said. “So I volunteered, and after three weeks of EMT school in California, I kind of fell in love with medicine, and that sense of responsibility.”

Dr. Sommer on active duty (on left)

Inspired, Dr. Sommer returned to college to finish his undergraduate degree, and then went on to Nova Southeastern University Dr. Kiran C. Patel College of Osteopathic Medicine. When 9/11 happened during his second year of medical school, he decided to return to the service when he finished his training.

The Coast Guard didn’t have the opportunities to take care of patients Dr. Sommer was looking for, so when he finished residency in 2006, he went into active duty with the Army in Afghanistan for 15 months, where he was tasked with treating soldiers and civilians.

“Going from residency at a community-based hospital to combat was an interesting transition for me,” Dr. Sommer said. “The pathology that I was exposed to went from the basic bread and butter stuff like COPD, pneumonia and congestive heart failure to battlefield trauma, malaria, tuberculosis, and diseases and conditions we only learned about in textbooks. The trauma patients I took care of were especially eye-opening. Nothing ever seemed overwhelming to me after combat.”

Dr. Sommer’s experience in the military opened his eyes to the value of telemedicine as well. In Afghanistan, hospital transfers were cumbersome, so he often reached out to colleagues for guidance on managing unfamiliar diseases and wounds. So in 2015, he founded Innovator Health, a telemedicine technology company that creates devices for immersive remote physician care.

That expectation of on-the-fly versatility is what makes military care unique, and it’s a key skill Dr. Sommer took back to civilian care.

“If you’re a physician in the military, you’re going to do everything,” Dr. Sommer said. “If you’re in a situation you’re not trained for, you’re going to be taught the basics of what you need to know to be able to manage it. The military expands the scope of your career exponentially.”

Now a member of the Army Reserves, Dr. Sommer was dispatched to New York City in the spring of 2020 to treat COVID-19 patients at a makeshift field hospital.

Related reading:

The best articles about DO veterans and military physicians

Becoming a military physician: The basics

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