COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. (Feb. 5, 2016) -- Ebola and malaria aren't diseases doctors working in the hometown of the Baseball Hall of Fame expect to deal with.
But Dr. William LeCates, a kidney specialist and medical director of Bassett Healthcare Center here, has experience with these diseases, as well as battlefield medicine, as a result of his other career as Lt. Col. William LeCates, a New York Army National Guard doctor.
Seven years as a military doctor-including six months in Liberia in 2015, and two three-month tours in Afghanistan, have made him a better physician overall, LeCates said.
The things he's learned about military leadership and the way the military quickly incorporates medical lessons learned into clinical practice, and the training he's had in dealing with medical trauma, have all helped make him a better civilian doctor.
"It is difficult for me to be absent from my civilian work but I come home again with a better appreciation for my own civilian role," LeCates said.
LeCates, who has worked for Bassett Healthcare Network since 2003, practices internal medicine as well as serving as medical director at the hospital.
Since 2009, he's also been a member of the New York Army National Guard, putting the knowledge and skills he gained at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore to work for American and allied military personnel.
He always had an interest in serving in the military but going to medical school, establishing himself in a practice, and having three kids along the way meant putting off that goal.
Finally, with his family settled in Cooperstown, his practice established, and the realization that at age 39 he needed to join the military now or never, he decided to seek a commission in the Army Medical Corps.
"The Guard was a perfect fit for me," he said. "I knew we could have our home, we could stay in our home, Debbie [his wife] and my kids could be secure and fixed in our schools and the community and I could carry out my military duties."
As an Army Guard doctor, LeCates serves as a member of the New York Army National Guard's Medical Command, or MEDCOM. Mostly they conduct medical readiness weekends at Camp Smith Training Site, just north of Peekskill in the Hudson Valley, or on Fort Drum in northern New York, along with treating Soldiers during training periods.
But his service has also meant going to war, and since joining the Army National Guard, LeCates has deployed three times.
His first deployment in 2010 was with the Iowa National Guard's 334th Brigade Support Battalion at Camp Blackhorse in Pol-e-charky, Afghanistan, as an individual mobilization augmentee to the battalion's medical company.
Soldiers from the Iowa National Guard were training Afghan National Army troops and he was the doctor charged with keeping them healthy, and also working with the Afghan National Army medics.
It was a barebones medical clinic -"Role 1" in military parlance - where the job was to provide basic primary care, emergency treatment for injuries and wounds, and stabilize the patients so they could be transported to more sophisticated treatment facilities, LeCates said.
His second three-month deployment, the standard for Reserve component doctors, was in New Kabul Compound - an American military facility in the heart of Afghanistan's capital city - in 2013.
This time he was working at a major U.S. forces headquarters as the physician for 800 American personnel. The compound was also adjacent to an Afghan military hospital, where he worked with the Afghan medical personnel to treat arriving casualties.
"I had a chance to do some mentoring with the Afghan military physicians," he said.
LeCates' most recent deployment was a six-month non-combat mission to the West African country of Liberia, with a 14-member detachment from the Michigan Army National Guard.
The Michigan National Guard Soldiers were in Liberia as part of Operation Onward Liberty, a mission to train and mentor the armed forces of Liberia. The program began in 2010 with U.S. Marines acting as trainers and mentors, and was supposed to end in 2014. But the leaders of Liberia, which was established in the 1820s by freed African-American slaves, wanted more assistance, so the mission was extended and given to the Michigan National Guard, which has a state partnership program there.
Since Michigan Army Guard Soldiers needed a doctor-both to keep them healthy and work with Liberians military doctors, LeCates volunteered for a six-month deployment, filling two three-month reserve physician deployment slots.
"We lived and traveled with the Liberians. Wherever they traveled, we traveled," he said. "They were always gracious hosts but some of the areas were very rural. It was really hands on."
As a doctor, the deployment offered a remarkable opportunity to see medicine at both the macro and micro level, as the country dealt with the aftermath of the Ebola outbreak that hit the country in 2014, LeCates said.
"The country is small enough, and the cities are close enough, that in a single day I could be in a Liberian clinic looking at young kids that are getting malaria, and in the evening I could be working at the ministry of health and helping to understand their Ebola response efforts," LeCates said.
"In Liberia the medical experience, the diseases and diagnoses I saw, are ones I will never see in the United States,' he added.
Overall, his military experience has been a tremendous benefit to his work as a doctor at Bassett Healthcare, a place he chose for his career because he gets to perform complicated, challenging medicine in a small-town setting, LeCates said.
"I think military leadership training is the best type of leadership training available," he said. "I am fortunate in my civilian job to have an opportunity for a medical administrative role here at the hospital, and that training in mentoring and motivating helps."
The military medical system is also very effective at using lessons learned and making on the spot improvements in clinical care, he added.
"The civilian sector is slower at those changes. It has given me a chance to look at how a big system can bring about changes to make improvements," LeCates said.
Finally, military doctors have pioneered new trauma care techniques on the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan, and knowing those skills is always useful, he said.
"The Army is very good at training its deploying doctors to understand the basics of point-of-injury care, and how to keep the Soldier safe," LeCates said.
He values his military medical duty but he couldn't serve if his bosses and fellow doctors at Bassett Healthcare Network in Cooperstown were not supportive, LeCates said.
His employer was recently awarded the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve's Above and Beyond Award in recognition of their support for LeCates' military service.
The support of his Family has also been critical since he put on the Army uniform, LeCates said.
"They are very supportive," he said. "I think every time I come back from deployment, we as a Family have to reassess. I have to pause and learn to be part of the Family again."
He takes a lot of pride in his role as a part-time military doctor, LeCates said. He and other Reserve component medical people are proud of the part they play in taking care of American service members.
"I think it is a strength of the military medical system that many of the deploying physicians are Reserve and Guard," LeCates said. "They bring skills learned at home to benefit the Soldiers."