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    Part I: The anatomy of an ‘old dog’ mastering new tricks: A combat surgeon’s journey from the trenches of big business to the front lines of Afghanistan

    Deployment Research

    Photo By Sgt. Breanne Pye | Capt. Douglas ‘Doc’ Powell, brigade surgeon assigned to Headquarters and...... read more read more

    Part One: Embrace the Past

    KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – Flip through history’s pages and you will find countless stories of men and women throughout the ages, who have taken incredible journeys and overcome impossible odds, to become our most celebrated heroes.

    Though the heroes from our history books are an impressive lot; if you’re looking for a modern day hero, you won’t have to look any farther than 1st Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division’s 49-year-old combat surgeon, affectionately referred to simply as ‘Doc’ throughout Task Force Raider.

    A former business executive for Burton Snowboards, Capt. Douglas ‘Doc’ Powell, brigade surgeon, assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Detachment, 1BCT, 4th Inf. Div., is currently overseeing a mission quite different than the design team he led with Burton, as he serves on the front lines of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.

    Powell, a native of Middlebury, Vt., said his journey to becoming an Army surgeon began upon graduating college, when he enlisted as a medic in the Vermont National Guard, where he competed for their winter biathlon team. After competing on the team for five years, Powell was hired by Burton Snowboards as a project manager.

    “Doug was an asset to our company,” said Jake Burton, founder, Burton Snowboards. “He was a hard worker who always gave me everything he had, never quit, and always led by example.”

    Though he thoroughly enjoyed his work at Burton Snowboards and the environment that kind of work provided, Powell said he continued to feel like something important was missing from his life.

    “After eight years at Burton, I started feeling a strong desire to get away from business and start doing something that would have an impact on people’s lives,” said Powell. “At that point, I began volunteering at a hospital in Burlington, Vt.”

    Within a month of working in the hospital’s cancer ward, Powell said he knew he needed to have some form of medical service in his career.

    When Powell went to Burton and said he was leaving Burton Snowboards to pursue a career in medicine, Burton said it seemed like a late move to be trying something so ambitious. Even so, he said, Powell has great intentions, great drive and a little stubbornness, which are all aspects of his personality that make him the kind of guy who is capable of extraordinary things.

    “Doug was never a guy to act impulsively,” said Burton. “Clearly, his decision was well thought out, so as much as I hated to see him go, I never considered talking him out of his decision.”

    Powell said after working in a business environment for so long, his volunteer work in the cancer ward was one of the most trying, yet rewarding experiences of his life. Throughout his time there, Powell felt the call to practice medicine become stronger and more important in his life.

    “While working full-time and volunteering at the hospital, I signed up for night classes to begin knocking out the pre-med classes I needed to complete before applying to medical school,” said Powell.

    The process of completing those classes was an arduous one for Powell. His pre-grad college degrees were in English and History, so he had to take multiple classes just to qualify as a medical school applicant.

    “I had a lot of ground to make up if I wanted to make it into medical school, so I set a goal for myself,” said Powell. “I would take one class, biology, and if I got an ‘A’, I would continue taking classes.”

    That became the bar for Powell as he continued his journey to complete his pre-med curriculum; as long as he got an A, he would keep going. As it turned out, he kept that standard up through the completion of his pre-med program.

    Finishing his pre-med courses was a huge accomplishment for Powell, but he knew he had a long way to go before he could actually practice medicine, so he continued to work for Burton and spend all his free time volunteering in the cancer ward.

    “There were a lot of patients and experiences that began to weave the fabric of the epiphany of my wanting to practice medicine,” said Powell. “But there was one patient in particular that made it all happen.”

    During his time as a volunteer, Powell worked with a woman who had terminal breast cancer. He said that every day, the woman would bring her husband and young daughter to sit with her as she went through chemo-therapy.

    Powell said the woman never focused on the treatment she knew would not work; instead she focused on interacting with her family and giving them memories and joy that would last a lifetime.

    “There was something about the woman’s drive and passion for life that both inspired and humbled me,” said Powell. “She had the most positive attitude as she interacted with her family and doctors in the ward. Even after she died, I never stopped being affected by her enthusiasm.”

    In reflecting on his journey, Powell said that, even though his application to medical school was denied the first time he applied; it was the memory of the woman and her family that convinced him to continue his efforts to become a medical practitioner.

    “Throughout my career, one of the best pieces of advice I ever received, was from a medical colleague of mine,” said Powell. “That colleague told me: ‘whenever you have doubt about the path you are on, go and spend time with the patients. They will always pull you through. They will always inspire you and they will always remove doubt.’”

    Powell said that advice has proven true in every stage of his medical career, and is as meaningful now as it was in the beginning. He said it wasn’t just about spending physical time with the patients, but also reflecting on his experiences with them that gave him inspiration along his journey.

    “After my application to medical school was denied the first time, I was really starting to question whether or not this was the right journey for me,” said Powell. “I went out to California to work for a friend of mine in the snowboard industry and really thought I would be continuing in the business.”

    Powell said he was on his way back to the east coast for a final interview for a position in the private sector, when he ran into a woman in the airport who had a cast on her arm. He stopped to help the woman with her bags, and over the course of their conversation, discovered the woman was on her way back to the east coast to say goodbye to her best friend, who was dying of breast cancer.

    On his flight back to the east coast, Powell said he started thinking about the woman with the cast having to say goodbye to someone she obviously cared so much for. He began reflecting on his own experience with his favorite cancer patient and her family that he had spent his volunteer time with in Burlington.

    “During the plane ride, I began writing an essay about my experiences in working with, and eventually have to say goodbye to, that incredible woman,” said Powell. “I wrote her whole story in one take. It was one of those rare times you get the whole story out perfectly, on the very first draft.”

    Powell said when he re-read the essay as he got off the plane, he knew without a doubt he would be applying to medical school again.

    “I used that essay as my entrance essay on the medical school application,” said Powell. “After an anxious wait, I was accepted into 10 different medical schools across the country.”

    Powell eventually chose to attend Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston, Salem, N.C.

    At the time of his post-graduate enrollment, Powell was 40 years old.



    Date Taken: 03.28.2011
    Date Posted: 03.28.2011 00:33
    Story ID: 67822
    Location: KANDAHAR, AF

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