When I was a junior at the University of Missouri School of Medicine (Class of ’69), I joined the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) in 1968, a year before graduation. Serving in the USPHS is basically the same as serving in the Army, Navy or Air Force, except no combat. Those of us serving in the USPHS referred to ourselves as the “yellow berets.” I was able to get a Master’s degree in medical microbiology which gave me an advantage in the medical “draft.” By joining the USPHS I was deferred from active duty for a year to do a “straight medicine” internship, which I did at the USC County Hospital in Los Angeles. It was a 1,000 bed facility with lots of pathology, so perfect for me. When I finished my internship I had to go into active duty with the USPHS. The Army said you could “choose” where you wanted to be stationed, which meant writing down your ten most favorite choices in order. Of course, everyone wanted to go to the Presidio in San Francisco as their first choice, but only a Senator’s son would actually get to go there, while anyone else might end up with the last choice, number ten, at Ft. Leonard Wood in Missouri.
Fortunately for me, the USPHS gave me two choices. Doctor, we have an opportunity for your expertise at the National Institute of Health (NIH) at the Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, Montana, where they work on infections of military importance. Also, we have a second position at NIH Pacific Research Laboratory in Honolulu, Hawaii, also working on infections. Wait a minute…did you say Hawaii? I thought about it for a split second and said “I think I prefer the Pacific Research Section of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) in Hawaii!”
Over the next two years in Hawaii I became an expert on Dengue virus, a mosquito-borne virus of military significance. Wherever there are mosquitoes (like Vietnam), Dengue virus can be a problem. A epidemic of Dengue (which has no cure) can be catastrophic and temporarily cripple an army. I ended up staying in Hawaii for five years, studying Dengue and other infectious disease problems in the South Pacific.
After five years’ active duty with USPHS I was discharged with the rank of Commander. That rank meant that whenever I went to a military base the entry guard would look at my credentials, then look at me, then look at my credentials again and come to attention! (In order to pay me as a physician they had to give me a high rank). I parlayed my NIH job into two years stationed in New Caledonia working for the South Pacific Commission (SPC) in Noumea, New Caledonia. At the SPC I served as Chief Medical Officer and Epidemiologist, working on infectious diseases and a variety of other medical problems unique to the South Pacific islands. I visited most of those island nations, each of which had its own unique medical problems. For example, I helped define the cause of ciguatera fish poisoning, a major problem on many of the islands. I published a number of papers on medical issues while in Hawaii and New Caledonia.
I have been an Infectious Disease physician in Phoenix, Arizona for about 40 years now. If I make it to the 50 year medical school reunion in 2019, I would like to give a talk on “An Outbreak of Cholera in the Gilbert Islands” (now called Kiribati) instead of the usual boring talks at medical school reunions.