David Blake, MD, Colonel, U.S. Air Force, MPH '07
Dr. David Blake is a colonel in the U.S. Air Force and a 2007 graduate of the MPH in Public Health Practice program. He is currently the Surgical Operations Commander at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your professional career.
I’ve served in a variety of surgical and command capacities in Newport News, Virginia, Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho, Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii, and overseas in Japan and Iraq. My current duty station is at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, where I am the surgical operations commander overseeing 3 clinical residencies including ob-gyn, general surgery and a nurse anesthesia program. I also oversee about 300 personnel and maintain a platform for continuous deployment through our facility.
You had a long and distinguished military career before you enrolled in the MPH online program. How would you say that the MPH program has helped you further that career?
Well, I was able to better understand the outcomes and epidemiology of trauma and critical care. The other thing the MPH did was further my knowledge base of my command and control responsibilities. Taking electives such as Medical Law, Health Care Organization and Administration, and Health Care Finance allowed me to better understand and speak the appropriate language with my medical administrative colleagues, and to orchestrate and run those aspects of the hospital.
What drew you to the UMass program in particular?
I was interested in an advanced degree program, a master’s level program that catered to my interests in epidemiology and the administrative aspects of medical care. I also needed a program that was very flexible because my career in the service obviously does not allow me to stay in one place for 3-4 years. So the need for a distance-learning format was critical, as well as a lack of a residence requirement. Those things were really what sold me on the UMass program, because at the time I looked, back in 2001 and early 2002, this was about the only program I could find that had all those components the way I needed to have them.
One of the other big draws to this program, over the course of my tenure as a student, was the fact that the faculty members were employed full-time either professionally in their fields or in teaching the in-residence courses here. They weren’t just fly-by-night faculty who had signed up to teach distance-learning courses.
Did you face any challenges in doing your coursework online?
I think one of the challenges – and this is not unique to UMass but in general to the online format – is that you don’t have that direct relationship with your professors. That’s why I always tried to come here to meet with some of them, because I think that develops some of that in-residence kind of rapport. Another challenge might be a lack of access to an Internet platform. There were occasions when I would be traveling to the Far East and didn’t have dependable Internet access. There were also times when I was on a family vacation somewhere and the hotel didn’t have high-speed Internet available, so it would be hard to deal with some of the assignments.
The way I found to overcome those particular handicaps was to communicate with my professors, to let them know what I did for a living and that occasionally my duties might take me away and prevent me from being able to do my coursework. And they were okay with that as long as I let them know and made the appropriate arrangements ahead of time. I never had any professor turn an assignment away as long as they knew that there was an issue where I would be traveling and lacking connectivity with the class. That was really the big key, communicating upfront.
Were you able to have collaborative efforts with other students in the program?
We were. A couple of the courses I had to take as part of the core curriculum placed us in small working groups and required, basically, a discussion board. And we were able to form some online partnerships akin to what you would do in a classroom setting. Just like you might make arrangements to meet in the local coffee shop after class, we did it online in a discussion board. We’d set a time, we’d meet, and we accommodated time zones, everything from the east coast all the way out to Hawaii, which is where I was stationed at the time. And we were able to make that work. We’d get online, have our few minutes of chat back and forth, and accomplish the goals for the assignment.
Were there any classes in particular that had a strong impact on you?
Well, I think the biostatistics course, which was the first course I took, had an impact. My undergraduate background is in mathematics and statistics, so being on familiar ground with a course which has a reputation for being fairly challenging really helped. It was a nice intro into distance learning, because I’m an old guy and I learn more from a traditional classroom, or at least I thought I would.
The other courses that were most memorable were the Public Health Emergencies class, because that’s an area that I deal with on a moderate to frequent basis in the service, and the law, finance and administrative courses that I took. Because of my current job and position in the service as a commander and leader of a division of surgery, these courses allowed me to hone my skills, to put concepts together, to better speak with some of my medical administrative colleagues, and put me in a position to foster good relationships.
How do you carry this training forward in the field?
Well, given my background as a trauma and critical care surgeon, we deal with injury prevention and we deal with the study of epidemiology of various outcomes from critical illness trauma. So I think that’s very germane to my business day-to-day, and so some of those topics from the coursework are certainly very relevant to what I do. And again, some of the administrative concepts, just being able to run the day-to-day business of the surgical squadron, to manage the finances, to understand the big picture/small picture of the resources that allow us to do our day-to-day business, were very important as well.
During your most recent deployment to Iraq, you were the trauma director of the Air Force Theater Hospital. Did you find that during the course of the war the Air Force Theater Hospital’s role in Iraq evolved?
I was not at the Air Force Theater Hospital in its infancy. That was back in 2003-05. But I can tell you that as it grew, and as we, especially over the last 3-4 years, started to gain a foothold on the insurgency there, the mission did start to transition more from managing battlefield injuries of the U.S. and coalition soldiers to a greater percentage of handling local nationals – local nationals being civilians, Iraqi army, Iraqi police and insurgents. Because of a lack of a well-developed infrastructure in Iraq, we ended up doing a lot more definitive care for these patients. However, if you look at the overall numbers over the last couple of years, they have come down from where they were say even 3 or 4 years ago.
In doing some background research for this interview, one of the things that I was especially affected by was the Stars and Stripes article about Tarik, the young Iraqi burn victim. I was wondering if you had any follow up information. [To view the Stars and Stripes article, click here.]
Tarik was a three-year-old boy who was brought to my facility early on in my tour as a trauma director in Balad, Iraq. He was brought by his father after a couple of days spent wandering in the Iraqi medical system trying to get care for this child who had sustained second- and third-degree burns. They showed up at our gate one day and, of course, we took him in. He spent the better part of 93 days at our facility. While we were not set up to provide definitive care for burn victims, we did manage to cover all of his burn wounds with grafts. We were able to do a couple of interventional procedures along the way to help facilitate nutrition, and to help alleviate some of the complications related to burn scarring and contractures, particularly around his face, his eyes and his lips. We were able to get him to a functional status. Toward the end of his stay with us, I was able to make contact with some of my civilian colleagues in the burn community, and in particular, Dr. Robert Sheridan of Boston’s Shriners Hospital. We made arrangements through another non-governmental organization to get Tarik and his mother to the States for evaluation, care and treatment. My last communication with Dr. Sheridan mentioned that Tarik did very well during his stay there and he’s now back in Iraq.
Thank you for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
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