Chris Allen, MD, cardiologist and Air Force Reserve flight surgeon
As most of us will celebrate our country this Independence Day, Dr. Chris Allen
will be putting his heart and soul into the day.
This week, Dr. Allen, an interventional cardiologist with St. Anthony’s Heart Specialty Associates
, begins a six-month deployment in the Air Force Reserve to the United States Central Command, or CENTCOM. He will serve in the Middle East: possibly Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, or another country.
"Flight surgeon is my primary duty and cardiologist is my secondary duty,” he said. “A flight surgeon’s main job is to keep the pilots and air crew flying, so you’re the doctor for pilots and co-pilots and navigators, but you also take care of their families and anyone who is on flying status. You also have to clear and validate patients to fly.”
Dr. Allen isn’t looking forward to leaving his wife, Clarissa, a family practitioner, and their four young sons. “But I wouldn’t be here without the military, so it’s hard for me to say that I don’t want to go,” he said. “To pay for school, I joined the Air Force, and when I got out I stayed in the reserves for a seven-year commitment.”
Dr. Allen grew up in a rural community outside Macon, Ga. He might have been a farmer like his dad, had it not been for a special summer job.
“I’m the only boy in the family, so my dad wanted me to farm,” he explained. “I was in college and came home and farmed every summer. One year I said, ‘Dad, if I’m going to work for you for the rest of my life, can I experience what it’s like to have a real job once?’ And he really didn’t want me to, but my mom talked him into it. I found a summer internship at a hospital, and they put me in pathology.
"One of the main things they had you do was put on scrubs and go to the operating room and take the surgical specimens to the pathologist. They also do autopsies. So one day, the pathologist says, ‘Come look at this autopsy.’ It was a guy who had suffered a heart attack; he was the principal of one of the local high schools. The pathologist said, ‘This is how he died, right here, you see, here’s the heart attack, and that’s what caused the heart attack.’ I thought, ‘Wow, this guy is brilliant,’ and I wanted to be like him. That kind of led me into medicine.
Now 40, Dr. Allen almost has completed his obligation to the military. He has about 20 months to go.
“Military service teaches a lot of things,” he said. “In the civilian world, the doctor says something and that’s gospel. Nobody even questions them. But in the military world, nurses will outrank me a lot of times, and technicians at times. You have to respect them, and they’ll respect you. If you don’t interact well with the nurses or technicians or transporters, you just can’t have a good collegial team.”
The stereotype of the average military person as a high-school dropout is erroneous, he added.
“You’d be shocked,” Dr. Allen said. “There are junior enlisted people who have master’s degrees, and they’re just brilliant. There’s so much institutional knowledge in the military that people just take for granted.”
Dr. Allen notes his absence will put a strain on his cardiology colleagues, who will have to sacrifice and pick up the slack.
“They’ve been super-supportive and they also realize it works both ways. I’m sacrificing, too,” he said. “We hope that I can grow from that and learn something, and that experience will benefit not only our group, but our hospital, our patients, the Mercy
system as a whole, to have that diversified background.”