FORT BENNING, GA – How do two active duty physicians manage to graduate from the same medical school and get stationed together through two permanent change of stations? Coordinating and planning. Through a lot of coordinating and planning. That’s how Martin Army Community Hospital’s Medical Director of Pediatrics Maj. Jessica Aguilar and Family Medicine Residency Faculty Physician Capt. Michael Aguilar manage to juggle the demands of the Army while raising two young children.
They met and fell in love their first week of college. You could say they “shared chemistry” in ironically of all places, their freshman chemistry class. “If you took this supplemental class, you were almost guaranteed a higher letter score because of the additional tutoring and teaching. Both of us being nerds, we elected to do it,” said Michael. “Within five seconds we were like we don’t need this. But each of us kept going because the other was still in there. That was our way of hanging out and seeing each other even though the class was worthless.”
Jessica majored in Athletic Training and graduated in four years, while Michael majored in Biomedical Engineering which is a five year program. Both Aguilars then applied to Ohio University, Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine. “We’re a year apart, so that was really tricky. I got accepted and then a year later, he applied and got accepted,” said Jessica. “Because I’m a year ahead of him through residency, when we went to Hawaii I went there a year ahead of him and then he followed a year later.”
Jessica did her Pediatric Residency at Tripler, while Michael started his Family Medicine Residency there in 2015. Michael was born in California and lived in Ohio and Pennsylvania, but it was both their first time in Hawaii. “Jess hadn’t really left northern Ohio. She went to elementary school, middle school and high school all on the same street. Then she went to college two and a half hours away and medical school three hours away,” said Michael. “And then all by herself, I was still finishing my last year of medical school, she flew to Hawaii and set up a home and started her medical training.”
“The best part of my job is working with kids every day. There are many things I get burned out on… the administration, emails, policy, things like that,” said Jessica. “But there is never a time that I have an interaction with a child that I don’t leave happier.”
Since Jessica started in BMACH’s Department of Pediatrics in 2018, she’s implemented a lot of changes. In a stroke of serendipity or prescience, they added virtual appointments for patients. “That was a huge upheaval to the way our system has typically been driven. We changed that template before COVID started,” said Jessica. “It was really nice we had this foundation in place so that when COVID happened we were able to just tweak the existing template we had rather than starting from scratch.
Under Jessica’s leadership, the department recently opened up the Pediatric Respiratory Urgent Care Clinic. “We see about 20 face to face appointments a day at urgent care. We’re also doing about 20 drive-through COVID testing a day,” said Jessica. “It’s the perfect place to come when a child is either sent home from school or daycare and they want to be seen right away. We have the rapid testing capability for everything including 15 minute COVID testing. That’s a new asset which has gone over really well.”
Jessica changed the way they staff the inpatient unit so that they have one pediatrician covering the newborn nursery for longer periods of time. This staffing change provides greater continuity for families. “Newborn nursery is such an exciting time for families. Many times as a pediatrician you see families on some of their worst days. Having a sick child is so hard. No matter how small of an illness or big of an illness, it’s hard to have a sick kid,” said Jessica. “But in the newborn nursery, you get to be part of the family for one of the best days of their lives. I just think that is so cool. Newborn nursery is my favorite.”
As much as Jessica loves working with children, her other passion is teaching so starting in January she will transition to Family Medicine Residency Faculty. “We’ve done more with the residents in the last two years so they rotate in our clinic. But now they also rotate out of the urgent care and rotate with us when we are on the newborn nursery,” said Jessica. “By being embedded in Family Medicine Residency, I’ll have the opportunity to work more closely with them and strengthen the curriculum from a pediatric perspective.”
Michael chose Family Medicine because he found focusing on just one specialty too restrictive for him. “I could be a cardiologist, I love pulmonary, I love treating older people, emergency medicine is awesome… I like treating pregnant patients but I also like treating Soldiers and men and kids as well,” said Michael. “Family medicine actually fits that bill because I’ve had the opportunity to train and pursue all of those things in some way or fashion. I don’t get to operate in the operating room taking out hips and knees. But I get procedure clinic where I get to help families with vasectomies and skins lesions and minor surgeries like that.”
As a member of the faculty, Michael gets to practice half the time and teach half the time. “I think I like teaching more because it’s very invigorating to see somebody understand and get it. See them with a struggle or a hurdle and then see them come back again the next time having mastered that,” said Michael. “I feel fulfilled, like I helped in some way.”
Michael returned from his first deployment right before Thanksgiving. “I left at the end of February. We landed in Poland, in the middle of the woods. Our initial mission was to be there in Poland for three to four months, come home for a month, and then return to the Middle East for nine months. And then COVID hit.
“They changed our entire mission. Instead of staying in Poland for three months, we were there for five months. And instead of coming home and then going to the Middle East, we actually just went to southern Europe. We were there for four months. We went from Poland down to Romania, Hungary, Greece and Georgia.”
Michael said the everchanging COVID complications benefitted their training. “We’re stressing the system, stressing our Soldiers in multiple avenues which is awesome for medicine. It gave us a lot of opportunity to see different things. So all of my medics who previously may have been really good at trauma got really good at contact tracing, nasopharyngeal (roof of nasal cavity) swabbing and COVID guidelines.”
In a way, the COVID complications also ended up benefitting the Aguilar family. “Initially it was a little bit of a heart sink because I had thought I just have to make it through three months and then I get to go see them. But after a day or two it really ended up being a positive because it changed what would have been a 15 month long process down to ten or 11 months.”
Regardless of the length, the physical separation from his young children and Jessica proved to be the most difficult. “Zoom and FaceTime and all that are great, but at the same time I’m not there. It was hard seeing my wife have a really hard day and also realizing you can’t reach out and touch those people.”
Technology did help Michael not miss out on some of his children’s milestones. “I got videos of Cora (their one a half year old daughter). When I left she was a little baby and about halfway through she was walking and running and using her words. So that was captured on video and FaceTime. Same thing with Axel (their three and a half year old son). His language just exploded. At first, I could understand some of it. Now I almost feel like you can have a conversation with him.”