Combat surgeon leaves big business for Army, front lines of Afghanistan
March 28, 2011
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 lead 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 who 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 effected 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.
PART TWO: ENGAGE THE PRESENT
Walk through the halls of any American University and you expect to see the bright, young faces of eager students, fresh out of high school, ready to write the first solo chapter in their own personal "book of life."
What those young students didn't expect, as they prepared to engage in their very first lecture, was to find themselves sitting next to a jovial, white-haired, former business executive they may have mistaken for the professor.
At 40 years old, Powell began his first year of post-graduate medical school.
As he started this new stage of his epic journey, Powell found himself facing a much different set of challenges than his bright-eyed student counterparts at Wake Forest.
"What was tough, very tough, was to be thrown into medical school with young, smart students fresh out of science-based majors," said Powell. "As a liberal arts major in my undergraduate degree, learning science was something new that I had to undertake to enter medicine."
With only two years of medical classes, taken at night while volunteering and working a full-time, high-level, private-sector job at Burton Snowboards, Powell said it was incredibly challenging to become comfortable with the new subject matter he was studying.
The challenge for Powell came in trying to keep up with his classmates academically after years of navigating the twists and turns of business. In comparison, many of his classmates were fresh out of four-year programs and had a significant amount of lab research experience.
"There were many times during my first and second year, when I doubted I was smart or resilient enough to get through the next exam," said Powell. "I wondered whether I should have chosen another medical school, a less arduous profession, or even if I should have continued my career in business."
Fortunately for Powell, the discrepancy between him and his peers leveled off quite a bit when his medical school classes transitioned from class work to clinical work, or working with actual patients.
"It was much easier to apply science to the care of patients, than it was to get good grades on standardized exams," said Powell. "But as I got better and better with the former, I continued to struggle with the latter."
Though it was a battle, Powell overcame the trials and tribulations of academic rigor. He made it through one test and then another; one class and then another; one year and then another.
Powell said the early years of medical school found him homesick and overwhelmed, emotions that are now blunted by the fact everything worked out perfectly in the long run.
But Powell did more than just make it through those first tumultuous years; he did it all with style. In conquering his fears of failure and setting aside the stress of starting from the ground up, Powell managed to walk across the stage at the end of his four-year program to receive his diploma as a medical doctor. He had finally made it.
The bar he set for himself years ago, to take just one class, and get an A, all while struggling to balance his career and volunteer work, proved to be just the right height for a man who had nothing but great expectations for himself.
"I attribute a lot of my ability to endure those trying times to my background as an aerobic athlete," said Powell. "No matter how busy or overwhelmed I felt, I got out for a run or a long bike ride to recharge my batteries enough to face the next challenge head-on."
As it turned out, the next challenge would be Powell's medical residency, and he faced it without having a moment to catch his breath from the rigors of academically mastering medical science in the classroom.
A medical residency is a stage of medical training completed immediately after medical school. Resident physicians have already received their medical degree and the next step is for them to practice medicine under the supervision of a fully licensed physician in a hospital or clinic.
Powell chose to complete his residency in internal medicine at Madigan Army Medical Center, located at Joint Base Lewis-McChord,Wash.
During the course of his residency, Powell decided to compete on the Army 10-miler running team. The team he ended up on was comprised of combat arms officers and noncommissioned officers, most of whom served on the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Spending time with teammates from my 10-miler team really inspired me to want to practice medicine in a line-unit," said Powell. "Hearing their stories and experiences re-ignited my original passion to engage in public service. I absolutely knew, without a doubt, that I had to serve in a combat arms unit."
As it would turn out, the universe agreed. Shortly after completing his medical residency at Madigan Army Medical Center, the stars aligned, and Powell found himself accepting his very first assignment as a medical professional, brigade surgeon for 1st Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, 'Raiders.'
One might think Powell would find himself overwhelmed at the prospect of being directly responsible for the medical welfare and readiness of a 4,000 servicemember Brigade Combat Team, but it turns out there was a solution to that as well.
Sometime before the completion of his medical degree, Powell had a friend approach him with the assertion that the 'Doc' was in need of a companion to accompany him through the duration of his journey through medical school.
As with most of Powell's adventures, the result of that proposition turned out to be equally extraordinary.
The friend, who assured Powell that he needed a companion, just happened to be working with a pet rescue in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to find homes for dogs who were abandoned or displaced as a result of the disaster.
"Eventually, I caved in to her constant insistence that the one thing missing from my life, was a dog," said Powell. "I got my Labrador, Baxter, shortly before completing medical school and he's been my faithful companion through most of this journey."
More than a just being a faithful companion, Baxter accompanies 'Doc' on nearly every adventure or activity he participates in; from running mountain trails, to mountain biking and even snowboarding.
"I always joke that it takes a village to raise a dog, but in Baxter's case, it's really true," said Powell. "He's directly responsible for helping me establish lasting friendships with the neighbors and people who looked after him while I was in the hospital overnight, on call."
So the 'old dog' and the new dog became a dynamic duo, which would see 'Doc' Powell not only through the completion of his residency, but through the beginning of the next phase of his journey as a brigade surgeon of the 'Raider' Brigade.
Though Powell didn't know it at the time, it wouldn't take long for Baxter to win over another heart, which would eventually lead the 'dynamic duo' to become the 'dynamic trio'."
PART THREE: ENVISION THE FUTURE
Any truck driver, cyclist, or distance runner will tell you there are all sorts of interesting things to discover out on the open road, but one thing you are unlikely to find as you navigate the world's highways is a wife.
In continuing an epic journey mapped by extraordinary events and accomplishments, that's exactly what Powell managed to find.
The 49-year-old former business executive for Burton Snowboards said he hadn't thought much about finding a life-long companion. He already enjoyed the company of his faithful dog, Baxter, and a career marked by more wildly successful ventures than most folks manage to scrape together in a lifetime.
"It was really fate that brought Heidi and I together," said Powell. "I was in a bike shop one day and ran into a woman who told me she was going on a 100-mile bike ride the following day. Through the course of our conversation, the woman invited me to join her and a friend on the ride. It turned out that friend was my future wife, Heidi."
About 30 miles into the bike ride, Powell discovered that he and world-class triathlete, Heidi Grimm, only lived about two blocks away from each other in their Colorado Springs neighborhood. The rest, as they say, "is history."
After a little help from Powell's dog, Baxter, and a six-month courtship, Powell and Grimm married shortly before 'Doc' deployed to Afghanistan.
"Heidi's job really makes for an interesting dynamic between us," said Powell. "She works for the U.S. Olympic committee, in the Paralympics division, setting up adaptive athletic programs at wounded warrior clinics across the country."
"We are truly a team when it comes to taking care of Soldiers," said Powell. "As a doctor, I work to stabilize wounded and sick Soldiers and get them back home where they can heal. As a director for adaptive athletic programs, Heidi takes those wounded and sick Soldiers and gives them a way to take their life back."
In holding up his end of the partnership, Powell has done a sensational job at taking care of the warriors of 'Raider' Brigade and the Afghanistan National Security Forces, said Lt. Col. David Meyer, executive officer, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division.
"I can't imagine having the guts and determination to change careers at 40," said Meyer. "I wouldn't even know where to start."
But Meyer said Powell always knows exactly where to start. Whether it's turning one career in for another, or figuring out how to train hundreds of Afghan soldiers and police, who can't read, how to administer advanced medical aid on the battlefield; 'Doc' always figures out a way to get the job done.
Figuring out how to overcome seemingly impossible odds is exactly the sort of challenge that inspires Powell to continue his journey as a medical professional in the U.S. Army.
"Being a doctor on the front lines gives me an opportunity to effect the care, wellbeing and medical readiness of a more diverse population of people," said Powell. "It's an incredibly rewarding, interesting and challenging job."
Powell said 'Raider' Brigade has established a medical footprint throughout Afghanistan that extends across some of the most dangerous and geographically challenging terrain in the country.
"To be able to deliver health care in an area that didn't previously have an effective healthcare system in place gives me an incredible feeling of hope and accomplishment," said Powell.
During his deployment to Afghanistan, 'Doc' has done a lot more than just deliver health care to underprivileged villages throughout the country, he has helped design and implement a comprehensive medical training program for the Afghan National Security Forces, or ANSF, that will be saving lives long after the last American boots leave Afghan soil.
When he deployed to Afghanistan with 'Raider' Brigade in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, Powell realized that the Afghan forces would never have access to the medical equipment U.S. forces routinely carry with them on mission.
Instead of being discouraged with the quality of equipment he had to work with, Powell and his team began to put together a training manual for the ANSF which uses common items they would find on the battlefield.
As a large percentage of the Afghan population is illiterate, Powell and his team used step-by-step pictures to put the training manual together, so Afghan forces would not only understand it, but be able to pass the training on to their predecessors without the help of U.S. Forces.
The manual Powell envisioned and put together is now a standard for ANSF medical training across Afghanistan.
After all the success Powell has helped bring to 'Raider' Brigade during his time in Afghanistan, It's hard to imagine how he could possibly find a way to challenge himself further as he transitions to the next step of his incredible journey.
But as it is with the heroes from our history books, 'Doc' isn't the type to settle for what he has already accomplished. He is absolutely certain there is still more to be done.
So in June, Powell, Baxter and Heidi will be moving to the east coast to start yet another exciting chapter in their chronicles, as Powell begins a high-profile fellowship program, in critical care medicine, at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
"This fellowship is an opportunity for me to learn from, and work with, some of the best trauma and burn physicians in the world," said Powell. "It's also an opportunity for me to teach new resident doctors and medical students critical care medicine."
"Powell has an exceptional ability to teach," said Meyer. "He easily identifies how people learn, and without passing judgment, is able to create an environment of knowledge for them."
As Powell has already proven himself an exceptional teacher, Meyer is confident 'Doc' will bring his combat experience to the next generation of brigade physicians and give them the tools to succeed, as Powell has.
Though he's very much looking forward to beginning his fellowship in Washington, D.C., Powell said he doesn't plan on slowing down his efforts to continue expanding 'Raider' Brigade's medical footprint in Afghanistan any time soon.
"My goal right now is to continue to make sure 'Raider' Brigade is prepared for any medical contingency that might come up," said Powell. "Experiencing success with the programs we've already implemented here only makes the last few months of this deployment vital to creating even more progress."
Even as his combat deployment draws to an end, Powell is still finding ways to solve problems. He is still climbing the mountain and finding his way to the valley below, where the finish line awaits.
In reflecting on the end of his time as a brigade surgeon and the steps it took to get there, Powell said he is just as inspired to continue his work in public service as he was the very first time he volunteered on the cancer ward in Vermont in 1999.
"Twelve years after I began my journey, I am still discovering, still experiencing rewards that are indescribable," said Powell. "This calling is as strong and motivating to me now, as it was the day I began my work in the medical field."
Through everything he has accomplished, 'Doc' has maintained a sense of humility and gratitude that is equally as impressive as his desire to continue to improve his medical knowledge and expertise.
"The amazing thing about 'Doc', is there are so many layers to him; just when you peel back one layer and think you have him figured out, you discover another amazing piece to his puzzle," said Meyer. "Every conversation overturns another bit of experience, education or training he's been through and I'm impressed all over again."
Meyer said one of the things that makes Powell so incredible is he's accomplished so many epic feats, but you'd never know it unless you asked him directly or heard it secondhand.
He won't tell you his story is special or unique. He doesn't think he has accomplished something that each and every human being on earth isn't capable of.
What Powell will say, is he's come to realize through his journey, is that it only 'seemed' very daunting to say he was going to quit a great job and spend the next 12 years working toward a seemingly impossible goal. But when he looks back at his journey, life wasn't suspended for those 10 years.
"I think when people consider taking a long journey like I have done, they see the beginning and the end," said Powell. "They don't realize there is a great amount of life experience collected along the way."
"Each place I traveled throughout this journey has brought great friends and experiences with it," he said. "When I reached my destination I looked up and I had less hair and it was all white, but I knew I had done it, without giving up life to get it done."
If there's one piece of advice Powell would give people considering a life-changing journey like the one he's accomplished, it would be to focus on one stage at a time.
"It's not possible to start an epic journey like this and get yourself to the end without help," said Powell. "You make it to the first fork in the road, then up the pass and through the mountains; then down into the valley. Ultimately, it's about linking all the little sections together to get to the end"
For Powell, the end of one epic journey is just the beginning of another.
As he prepares to depart the ranks of the 'Raider' Brigade, Powell will be celebrated and remembered by his fellow Soldiers, as a man with an unquenchable thirst to help others, who always lead by example.
In completing his epic journey, Powell not only embraced and upheld the United States Medical Corps motto: 'Embrace the past. Engage the present. Envision the future,' he has passed that torch of inspiration on to a new generation of dreamers, whom he hopes will carry it long after he has moved into the next chapter of his incredible life.