By Mike Strasser, U.S. Military Academy Public AffairsMay 22, 2013
WEST POINT, N.Y. (May 22, 2013) -- Class of 2013 Cadet Drew Long is among 13 future Medical Corps officers who will be attending medical school following graduation from the U.S. Military Academy on May 25. Having achieved the highest grade point average among them, he was presented with the 2013 Richard M. Mason Memorial Award by Col. Felicia F. Pehrson, commander of Keller Army Community Hospital May 21.
The Life Science major was accompanied by his family--father, Jeff; mother, Nancy; and brother, Air Force Capt. Brit Long. He was also joined by 10 other classmates as they were welcomed into the Army Medical Corps and received their Army Medical Regimental Crest. Pehrson spoke to them about the passion of Army physicians and how they can affect the lives of so many people in their profession.
"May you never lose your drive and passion to be a healer, and I want to congratulate you and wish you the best in your careers," she said.
Pehrson spent a little time with the Long family before the presentation and congratulated the cadet on graduating with a 4.1 GPA.
"This is a challenging school with a very challenging program, and it speaks volumes that you did so well," she said. "That's what medical schools look for. They don't just want brains--they're looking for people with character and West Point clearly graduates students who've developed that and tend to be well-rounded."
The award Long earned is named after the 1968 USMA graduate and highly-decorated Vietnam War veteran who left the service to pursue a career in medicine. Mason died of cancer in 1977 at the age of 30 and his parents founded the award in his honor.
"To win an award named after a graduate who put his country before himself and then went to medical school to do great things is such an honor to me," Long said. "I was very happy to learn about this great man."
Like Mason, Long didn't come to West Point already thinking about medical school.
"It was pretty far from my mind. I actually wanted to become an Infantry platoon leader, and I still have great respect for that branch and what they do," Long said.
Long said he's always had an interest in biology and knew midway through plebe year the academic path he would take. However, the Life Sciences major's passion solidified while shadowing physicians at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center during an Academic Individual Advanced Development internship in the summer of 2011.
"Basically for three weeks I was able to follow doctors from different fields of medicine--surgery, pediatrics, cardiology--and one of the best experiences I had was helping those who had lost limbs in combat," Long said.
That was in the Military Advanced Training Center, a state-of-the-art amputee care facility at Walter Reed for active duty, retired and military family members.
"When I was there I was able to help with physical therapy, help them get used to living with a prosthetic limb," Long said. "I tell you, that was the most motivational and uplifting experience of my life. I'd come to work every day and these guys would come happy, motivated and ready to get better. It was absolutely inspirational to me, and made me focus outward--away from myself--so I could help others the best I could."
Long said he's grateful for the opportunities West Point provides cadets for professional, academic and personal growth. Another for him was going to Australia last summer, an experience which Long said he could talk hours about. Joining him on that trip was Class of 2013 Cadet Kelley Cassidy. The three-week AIAD at the Australian Army Malaria Institute in Brisbane allowed them to learn about the collaborative efforts between the Department of Defense and the Australian Defence Force while they worked with an ADF scientist on developmental drug research for malaria and also individual research projects.
Long's focus was on the study of secondary messengers involved in cellular signaling and parasite growth, according to the Department of Chemistry and Life Science. Long said this had never been measured in the parasite before and it was exciting to be involved in new scientific research, though for just a short period of time.
"What they taught us was the latest techniques and scientific methods of malaria and the malaria parasite plasmodium falciparum, which is the most deadly strain," Long said. "The scientists there are basically the top malaria researchers in the world. It was very humbling and very educational."
He had no qualms about working so closely with a deadly disease. Long's research on malaria began long before in the safe confines of the third floor malaria laboratory in Bartlett Hall where he said "safety, safety, safety" is drilled into cadet researchers and enforced as strongly as Soldiers moving onto a marksmanship range.
"We practice techniques such as--we call it the aseptic technique--which is basically sterilization procedures kind of the same thing you do in surgery. You have to be careful of all the instruments your using and being careful with the transfer of blood," Long said.
It's not like anyone would deviate from procedure, considering the risk of infection, Long said.
"They definitely drill a lot of caution, a lot of safety techniques into us from day one at West Point," Long said.
The internship Long and Cassidy conducted in Australia was presented during Projects Day in the Department of Chemistry and Life Science on May 2. Long also presented the research he continued with Class of 2013 Cadets Aaron Brockshus and Taylor Neuman.
"Last semester we were basically getting our culture up and running which could be very difficult getting the right conditions for the parasite to grow," Long said. "This semester we tested five different drugs that had never been tested before to see if they had any impact on the parasite and in what concentration they inhibited the parasite."
The team had limited success, Long said, nothing publishable, but still a worthwhile endeavor which yielded good methods and techniques while establishing a procedure for figuring out whether the drugs had any impact on the parasite and the doses needed to kill it.
According to the Department of Chemistry and Life Science website, about 10-20 cadets from each class--beginning with the Class of 1979--have proceeded directly to medical schools. By law, no more than 2 percent of the graduating class at West Point is permitted. Just wanting to be a doctor won't suffice, according to those familiar with the process. Cadets first have to be endorsed by the academy, delve into a pile of paperwork, study and pass the MCAT exam at their own expense and appear before medical boards before even learning which--if any--schools will accept them. Some may attend the Department of Defense's Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences, and those going to civilian medical schools may receive financial support through the Army Health Profession Scholarship Program.
Long will be attending Vanderbilt University School of Medicine where he wants to specialize in either general surgery or emergency surgery.
"As of right now, given my limited experience shadowing physicians, those are the specialties I'm most interested in," Long said.
Of course his interests could go to general practice, pediatrics or even an emergency room physician like his brother's specialty.
"He talks a good game about it, so I would definitely consider it," Long said. "There's a certain thrill not knowing what could be coming through those doors at any time."
At Walter Reed, Long had the chance to scrub in with a general surgeon during a skin graft procedure.
"We grafted something like 1,200 centimeters onto this patient who suffered an [improvised explosive device] blast and for a large amount of his back he needed skin replacement," Long said.
He also shadowed another surgery involving the removal of a tumor from a patient's gall bladder.
"The attending physician who was there told me when the patient went to sleep he had cancer and when the patient would awake it would be gone. He said no other field can have such an impact on life as this field," Long said. "It's those kinds of experiences that really stick with you and makes you feel you can make a difference."