By: Jennifer Parraga, BA’93
The Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry has a long history of service with the Canadian Armed Forces. The Medical Officer Training Program (MOTP) is an important part of the relationship. Through the Program, medical students, residents and fellows who are also members of the military pursue their medical education with a goal of becoming the best doctors they can be both for their patients here at home and in conflict situations overseas.
The following stories profile four learners at different stages of their medical training.
In the service to others
The explosion was devastating, leaving nearly 300 people injured. It was July 4, 2012, when five 40,000 ton tanks exploded. Smoke and flames filled the air forcing civilians and soldiers to run for safety. Dr. Shane Smith and his medical colleagues moved into action, working alongside Afghan physicians caring for the injured.
For Dr. Smith, this day stands out among the many others from his first 10-month deployment as a general duty medical officer. He was stationed at Camp Alamo in Kabul, and the mass casualty event found him not only tapping into his training and reserves, it inspired him to pursue further training in surgery when he returned to Canada. Soon, he will be the first vascular surgeon in the Canadian military.
It’s a role more than 20 years in the making.
Dr. Smith joined the Canadian Forces fresh out of high school and began training with the military police. He also pursued undergraduate degrees in philosophy, math and physics and a Master of Science in biophysics and physiology. Medical school and a residency in family medicine followed, which he completed as a member of the MOTP.
Arriving in Kabul in February 2012, Dr. Smith was tasked with caring for allied and coalition soldiers and helping to establish trauma and vaccination programs.
He also served as an advisor and trainer for Afghan physicians and care providers. He helped establish a medical education program that drew upon the experiences of Afghan physicians and care providers to teach others.
While some Afghan physicians had international training, others had less formal training and had experienced apprenticeships during their combat experience. The hope of the Canadian team was to establish a sustainable program in which the Afghan physicians could teach each other on an ongoing basis to maintain the quality of care after the Canadian physicians left.
“It was very rewarding to take care of the soldiers and to try to make a difference through the local medical systems.” — Dr. Shane Smith
When he returned to Canada, Dr. Smith applied to the military to retrain as a general surgeon.
He chose Schulich Medicine & Dentistry because of Western University’s long history of supporting the Royal Canadian Medical Service. The Program was founded by Dr. Angus D. McLachlin in 1944, who himself was a Major in the armed forces, commanding the Number 10 Canadian Field Surgical Unit in north-western Europe during the Second World War. Throughout the decades, it has sustained a reputation for excellence in training military surgeons.
“It’s phenomenal how welcoming people have been here in ensuring that I have the best possible education. I have felt welcomed and supported throughout my training.”
After completing his surgical residency in June 2019, Dr. Smith began his fellowship in vascular surgery. He says the training will allow him to develop his skills in how to best treat combat injuries and continue to explore his research to help Canadian soldiers.
During this Remembrance Day and all those that are still to come, Dr. Smith will be thinking about the past soldiers who served before him during the First and Second World War and in Korea. It is a time when he thinks about his friends and fellow soldiers who served with him in Afghanistan and around the world. It is a time when he thinks about the soldiers who have died in the service of Canada both past and present.
“Remembrance Day gives me an opportunity to reaffirm my own promise and oath to our country and our Queen,” he said.
Thank you for your service
Standing in line at a local Tim Horton’s, Dr. Ayalasomayajula never expected to receive a free coffee and a kind thank you for serving her country.
“I was in line talking to my friend about being in the military, and they must have overhead me, because when I ordered a coffee they told me it was free and they thanked me for my service. It was such a kind gesture, and so uncalled for,” she said humbly.
The experience left Dr. Ayalasomayajula feeling even more proud of her decision to be part of the MOTP and to serve her country.
Born in India, Dr. Ayalasomayajula moved to Canada when she was only six years old. When she was a teenager, her father became critically ill, and it was then that she decided to become a doctor. She learned about the MOTP program early in her medical school studies and was struck by how closely its values and priorities matched her own.
“What appealed to me was the lifestyle the Program offered and the emphasis they placed on physical and mental discipline,” she said. “I thrive on schedule, discipline and staying active.”
Now as a first-year family medicine resident, Dr. Ayalasomayajula is having the opportunity to work more closely with veterans and participate in rotations that are geared to military students.
Working recently with a military psychiatrist, Dr. Ayalasomayajula realized the uniqueness of the patient population and the finessed skills that need to be developed to support them.
“I realized that there is a niche and special cohort of issues that military personnel deal with. Their trauma can be so specific and specialized and you have to be careful how you navigate your care delivery.” — Dr. Sudha Ayalasomayajula
A proud Canadian, Dr. Ayalasomayajula says that joining the military is just another way she is demonstrating her pride. She looks forward to one day being able to participate in Remembrance Day ceremonies in uniform and serve her country as a physician in Canada or beyond.
Continuing the tradition
Sitting in the Bell River Legion Branch #399, you are sure to notice Helen Brockman’s photo. A Second World War veteran, she served as President of the Legion for a number of years, and alongside her husband, who is also a veteran, has provided a lifetime of inspiration for her family.
Joseph Brockman is Helen’s grandson and a member of the Medicine Class of 2022 and the MOTP. Clearly proud, he tells the story of how his grandparents both served their country during the War and met while serving in the Forces.
It was during his first year of university that the younger Brockman began to research opportunities with the military in connection with his desire and plan to go to medical school.
“I saw that they were hiring medical officers, and throughout my undergraduate studies, I continued to read about the MOTP and what it offered,” he said. “It seemed like a good option for me. Not only would I be getting an unbelievable experience and great training, I could build on my family’s connection to the Canadian Forces.”
Fully immersed in his second year of medical school, Brockman sees strong parallels between his future role as a physician and as a military officer and is taking every opportunity to learn. A five-day exercise during his basic training this past summer, which he says was a true test of character, demonstrated to him the importance of teamwork and how necessary it is to succeed and survive.
“We didn’t sleep for five days straight and it was a true test of your character that pushes you to the wall,” he said.
“One of the biggest lessons I learned during that exercise is that when times are tough, people need to pull together. You need to know when to seek help and when to offer help.” — Joseph Brockman
It’s a lesson he can see applying to situations as he moves into clerkship and discovers and understands who he will be as a physician.
Being part of the MOTP has also provided Brockman with a great sense of belonging. He’s enjoyed learning the traditions, being part of a platoon and a community above and beyond his medical school class. He volunteers with the Windsor Regiment, and participates in exercises to maintain those skills. He also plans to march in the Remembrance Day Parade.
“It makes me proud to wear the uniform, and it is very humbling to be part of such a vast and diverse community with traditions that date back to my grandparents time and beyond.”
All heroes don’t wear capes
This past summer, Phong Nguyen spent four weeks completing basic training with the Canadian Armed Forces, fulfilling a requirement with the MOTP.
A memorial wall on the training base served as a regular reminder for him of the many Canadians who had lost their lives in battle.
“Growing up, we are taught that Remembrance Day is about honouring our fallen heroes,” Nguyen said. “But as a kid it’s a hard concept to wrap your head around as most of the heroes you are familiar with are super heroes in movies. Doing our parade practices next to the memorial wall this summer, I saw the names of ordinary people, like me. These people chose to give more than themselves and do something extraordinary. These are people I can learn from as I strive to be a better version of myself. These are the heroes we need to honour.”
Nguyen is a second-year medical student at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry – Windsor Campus. He says that he has wanted to be a physician for as long as he can remember and that he loved the idea of medicine as a service to people.
He started exploring how he might combine medical school studies with the military during his undergraduate studies, and realized that the MOTP would offer him an opportunity to serve people at a national level.
Nguyen’s parents came to Canada as refugees from Vietnam. They arrived as teenagers looking for a safe place to live and grow a family, and early on instilled the value of service in their children. Now, Nguyen welcomes the opportunity to give back and serve his country.
“I wanted to feel like I was part of something bigger than myself and that I could give to the community at large. Being a physician and being in the Canadian Forces are both services that help others. It feels good to be training to serve in two noble professions.” — Phong Nguyen
Reflecting on his time in medical school as a member of the MOTP program, Nguyen says that it has been a period of growth that has helped to reinforce his own personal identity.
“My father has a saying that you can’t grow up without being scratched up, and this experience is helping to forge my identity.”