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As They Prepare For Graduation, Students Look Back At Their Time At USU

A woman uses a wand attached to a laptop to examine the neck of a woman who is lying down on a stretcher. She is observed by two men and a woman in healthcare provider attire.
By Christopher Austin

It can take time to find it, but everyone has a calling in life. Some find it by chance, others are inspired by their family or a desire to help their community.  Some people might go through many options before they find what they want to do, but eventually, most people find their purpose.

More than 300 students will be graduating from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences May 19, and 170 of them have found their purpose serving the nation’s service members and their families and underserved populations throughout the country as healthcare providers in the Military Health System and U.S. Public Health Service. After several years of intense education and training, these four students take an opportunity to look back at what led them here.

A woman in fatigues and a flight helmet sits strapped into a metal rig with buoys along its side. It is in a pool of water and being handled by a diver with their back to the camera, and a Service member in fatigues and wearing a flight helmet standing on the other side of the metal rig.
Air Force 2nd Lt. Rachel Bridwell takes part in a flight medicine exercise at Ft. Rucker, Ala. in
February 2018. (Photo Courtesy of Air Force 2nd Lt. Rachel Bridwell)
Many students have had careers well before they came to the University; like Army 2nd Lt. Rachel Bridwell, a class of 2018 student who plans to specialize in Emergency Medicine. She had an eclectic series of jobs around the world before coming to the University.  After going to a small liberal arts school, she went on to teach marine biology in Australia, bartend in Denmark, and even served as a polar bear technician, helping researchers in Canada with their work and ensuring they were protected from the native wildlife.

“I tried to exhaust every [career] option,” she said, “But you pick military medicine because you can’t live without it, not because you think you should live with it.”

Bridwell has long had an interest in medicine, always encouraging members of her family to take care of themselves as they grow older. She ultimately decided on emergency medicine following a meeting with Army Col. (Dr.) Melissa Givens, associate professor in the Department of Military and Emergency Medicine at USU, and USU medical school graduate.

“I remember the first time I spoke with her and just her demeanor, presence and sense of humor and knowledge of topics … she can teach anything,” Bridwell said. “She was a very fun and engaging educator without being condescending. I was like, ‘I want to be you!’”

After graduation, she will be in residency for emergency medicine at San Antonio Military Medical Center, where she will be responsible for treating patients in need of urgent care. It is the only military hospital in the nation that regularly accepts civilian trauma patients.

Public Health Service Ensign Maria Bellantoni developed an interest in military medicine because of its focus on providing care on a large scale. Both of her parents were physicians, and she knew she wanted to go into medicine herself, but it wasn’t until she volunteered in New Orleans following Hurricane Isaac in 2012 that she realized the opportunities in military medicine available to service members.

“I was like ‘oh my gosh, these people are so cool!’ They’re policymakers by day, and when they’re needed, they’re called into these healthcare disaster areas. That’s what I want to do,” she said.

After graduation, Bellantoni begins her internal medicine residency at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Md., where she will also have the opportunity to work with community-based organizations like Health Care for the Homeless.

She said her experience in New Orleans inspired her to pursue public health policy, and was excited when she found out about the opportunities that USU students have to study and meet with policymakers. She recalls that her interviewer -- when she first applied to the University -- asked if she wanted to be surgeon general one day.

“I think this is the first place where those goals were recognized as being achievable and sort of admirable,” she said. “I like how this place fostered those goals and gave us extra training that you can’t get anywhere else.”

A man in an Air Force dress uniform stands next to another man in an Air Force flight suit in front of a number of standing flags.
Air Force 2nd Lt. Spencer Fray completed his flight medicine course at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio in February of 2018. The medical equivalent of Air Force pilot’s wings, Fray’s father, Lt. Col. (ret.) Sherman Fray, was present to bestow the badge on his son. (Photo Courtesy of Air Force 2nd Lt. Spencer Fray)

Other students, like Air Force 2nd Lt. Spencer Fray, were inspired to become military medical providers because of the example set by their families. Fray’s father was an Air Force pilot, and two of his cousins are in the military as well. Fray knew he wanted to be a healthcare provider early on, and that he wanted to take a military route to get there. Luckily, he was able to get advice from his aunt, retired Army Col. (Dr.) Jeannette South-Paul, who previously served as chair of the Family Medicine department at USU in the 1990s. She is currently the chair of the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

“One of the things she told me was the people that she worked with during her time in the military and while at the University were the ones who she stayed in contact with throughout her career. She recommended USU as an opportunity to start building a network,” Fray said. “You can go to any of these other medical schools and you’ll have a really nice time. You’ll get to know the people that you go to school with and then, after four years, you guys all go your separate ways. In the military, it’s very different. You’ll see those people throughout your career, and they’ll take care of you and your family.”

Fray did his military elective rotation at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, completing the flight medicine course and completing his aerospace medicine primary. His father flew out to pin on his son’s fight surgeon’s badge, the medical equivalent of the pilot’s wings the elder Fray earned during his time in the Air Force.

Fray will be heading to Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas after graduation for his residency in family medicine -- following in his aunt’s footsteps -- and flight medicine.

Air Force 2nd Lt. Adam Dulberger was also inspired to pursue a medical career by his family. His grandmother believed from an early age that he would be a doctor when he grew up, and even arranged opportunities for him to shadow doctors at the surgery center where she worked while he was in middle school. It was his grandfather, though, who instilled in him the importance of service. Dulberger recalls his grandfather always looking back at his own military experience with pride.

“After college, I had a desire to pursue a military career for medicine because I always had a feeling I wanted to give back, and serve my country, and thought it aligned with my own personality,” he said.

While at the University, Dulberger grew to have an interest in radiology due to his mentorship under Air Force Lt. Col. (Dr.) John Lichtenberger, an associate professor in the Department of Radiology and Radiological Sciences at USU, and a USU alumnus.

“I am a very visual learner, and it’s an extremely visual specialty; looking at the monitor, trying to use physical data to interpret the results of what’s going on inside the body, without having to make any sort of incision,” Dulberger said. “Dr. Lichtenberger introduced me to the field. He walked me through it and let me get an idea of if it's something I’d like to do.”

A man stands on the deck of a boat in the middle of open water holding a fish
Air Force 2nd Lt. Adam Dulberger holds a fish he caught during his Dive Medicine course taken while
attending USU. (Photo Courtesy of Air Force 2nd Lt. Adam Dulberger)
With Lichtenberger’s mentoring, Dulberger worked on several research projects, and was even to able to present some of them at the Radiological Society of North America in Chicago thanks to funding from the Capstone Initiative at USU. His residency after graduation will take him to David Grant Medical Center at Travis Air Force Base in northern California.

As these students prepare for their futures as military medical professionals, they each think back on the advice they wish they had received when first entering medical school.

“You want to be passionate about something because it’s going to be a large part of your life,” said Bridwell. “You should always be learning about the things that interest you.

“Don’t sweat some of the small stuff when you’re in medical school and every test, every grade seems like it could be the end of the world. It’s really not. It’s about maintaining that big-picture thinking that’s really important,” said Bellantoni.

“I think it’s important to find good mentorship and find it early, because I recognized where I am now -- I might have gotten here on my own, but it would have been a lot harder to get to this point without good counsel and people advocating for me in ways that I would not have known to advocate for myself,” said Fray.

“Be open to anything that comes your way academically, or friendships that you make,” said Dulberger. “And be sure to maintain a good work/life balance.”

These graduates enter their careers hoping to take their experiences from USU to improve and protect lives of service members, retirees, and their families all over the world.