Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Meet Oregon National Guard Member Dr. Mary Deighton

By RaeLynn Ricarte - The Dalles Chronicle

Dr. Mary Deighton, new to The Dalles, did not follow the path of most physicians from medical school into a clinical setting; she took a detour to Iraq in 2010 to save the lives of wounded warriors.

Deighton left active duty military service in July after deciding it was time to return to the gorge, where she grew up. She relocated from Colorado Springs, Colo., near her former duty station of Fort Carson, to The Dalles and is now working for Mid-Columbia Medical Center and treating patients at Columbia Hills Family Medicine.

“My grandmother worked at The Dalles General Hospital and my parents graduated from high school in The Dalles before settling in Hood River so this is home,” she said. “When I was in Iraq, I just felt this incredible call to be back here so the opportunity to work in this community is very welcome.”

Deighton hadn’t even finished unpacking boxes before she signed up to serve in the Oregon National Guard, where she retains the rank of major. She will train one weekend a month in Salem with other citizen soldiers in the medical profession.

“I just wasn’t quite ready to leave the military,” she said of that decision. “Everybody I went to Iraq with is now in Afghanistan and I felt like this is one way that I could continue to do my part.”

William Hamilton, vice-president of medical affairs for MCMC, is a Navy veteran and said the wealth of experience that Deighton gained from her service was one of the reasons she was hired. He said it became obvious during the interview process that she was a people-person and would work well with both patients and staff. MCMC has more than 80 providers– including physicians and other specialists -- in its health care system.

“Mary has roots here and that is always very important to us as we look to bring in new providers from a longevity and stability perspective,” said Hamilton. “She knows the area and was enthusiastic about joining our organization. I think being here will really help her grow into her role as a primary care provider for our community.”

In January, Deighton was awarded an Army Commendation Medal for risking her own life to pull an injured man from a burning vehicle that had overturned during a wreck near Fort Knox, Kenn., a base she was visiting. That medal was added to the Bronze Star she received during her one-year deployment for delivering outstanding service to 4,300 soldiers assigned to the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division.

Her role in Operation Iraqi Freedom was to provide physical and mental health care for the troops and she supervised the activities of seven physician’s assistants, six doctors and 243 medics.

Although Mary is proud to have earned decorations during six years on active duty, but she is ecstatic about being granted ownership of Major Aspen, the retired service dog who was her “battle buddy.”

Deighton found Aspen, a mixed-breed dog, in a shelter and arranged for her to receive several months of specialized training so she could provide comfort and care to injured or depressed soldiers. The canine started her military career with the name Iron Maiden and was assigned the rank of sergeant because her handler was a specialist and, by Army protocol, service dogs have to hold a higher rank. Deighton said that custom assures the dog gets top treatment because, to do less, can earn the soldier disciplinary action for disrespecting a superior.

When Iron Maiden’s original handler broke his ankle and couldn’t deploy, Deighton, then a captain, took charge of the dog, who was immediately promoted to major. Her name was changed to reflect the renowned fall foliage from the state she represented. Several weeks after arriving in Iraq, Deighton was also promoted but Aspen didn’t get to move into a lieutenant colonel slot.

“She can salute and absolutely loved being in formation,” said Deighton. “Aspen’s orders stated that she was to lick soldiers into awareness of their surroundings if they are injured or if they are stressed.”

She said service dogs give soldiers something to love during long separations from their families so Aspen received ample attention after their March 2010 arrival in Iraq.

She said it was never a problem to get a flight from one base to another, no matter how busy the helicopter crew was, if Aspen was with her. The dog was even served ice chips by pilots, a treat in weather that topped 140 degrees in the summer that was usually denied to human passengers. The purpose of having ice onboard the craft was to cool down the pilots, who were mandated to wear heavy Kevlar protective gear during all transports.

The canine did not cope well with mortar attacks on the base – one time even becoming so distressed she vomited -- and still becomes highly nervous when she hears loud noises.

Three times during the deployment, Deighton was directly exposed to shock waves that left her disoriented and impaired her hearing for days.

“All of a sudden I was on the ground looking up and I remember being so mad because I was going to die that way,” she said about the explosion that occurred while she was visiting Garry Owen, an outpost on the border of Iraq and Iran.

She said learning how to cope with the injuries and loss of soldiers that she knew and worked with was one of the most difficult aspects of her time in combat. She was devastated to learn about the death of a fellow student from Baptist Christian School in Hood River, now known as Horizon Christian, where she received her early education. She had graduated two years behind Dale Goetz, who became an Army chaplain and also worked out of Fort Carson, Colo.

On Aug. 2, 2010, she was returning home for leave and ran into Capt. Goetz in Germany, where they were both waiting for flights; hers to the U.S. and his to Afghanistan, where he would start a second deployment.

“We hadn’t seen each other since high school and spent 45 minutes talking about our families and our service,” she said. “He was nervous and I tried to give him some encouragement and he reassured me that I would be fine.”

On Aug. 30, 2010, Goetz became the first chaplain to die in a combat zone since 1970, where U.S. troops were engaged in the Vietnam War. He had hitched a ride on a resupply convoy that was headed through the Arghandab River Valley in Afghanistan. Several hours later he and four other soldiers were killed by roadside bomb. He left behind wife, Christina and three young sons.

“That was tough, really, really tough,” said Deighton, who organized a memorial service for Goetz in his hometown of Hood River following his burial at Fort Logan National Cemetery in Denver, Colo.

The dream of one day being a doctor stayed with Deighton through her years at California State University in San Marcos, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration and during seven years when she worked as an insurance underwriter.

“I always knew it was what I wanted, I just didn’t have the confidence,” she said.

Deighton’s husband agreed with her pursuing that dream so she enrolled at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, completing the two-year master’s program in one year with a study emphasis on anatomy and neuroscience in preparation for medical school.

She was then accepted into the University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine in Biddeford, Maine, and the family, which also included daughter Jessie, now 18, relocated to the East Coast.

Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Deighton felt called to join the military and assist in national defense. She was commissioned as a second lieutenant during her second year of medical school.

Upon graduation in 2006, she became a captain and began her three-year residency at Fort Bragg Womack Army Medical Center in Fayetteville, N.C., home of the Army’s largest family medicine program.

“Every resident handled all types of cases and our average work week was 100 hours,” said Deighton. “I had been able to coach my daughter’s soccer team and attend all of her activities during med school but for those three years, it was everything I could do to even make a game.”

She drilled for six weeks in trauma surgery techniques at the University of Cincinatti in Ohio, working under the leadership of a U.S. Joint Forces Command Surgeon, who made her run through endless battlefield scenarios.

“That was the single most important training to prepare me for Iraq,” she said.

Deighton remembers treating a soldier from an outpost in Iraq who had been shot in the buttocks by a sniper and then having that same individual end up in the hospital three months later with another bullet wound – this one in the right shoulder -- caused by the same shooter.

The strangest medical scenario she faced involved members of a Special Operation team who dropped in at Garry Owen to have two critically wounded comrades stabilized for further transport. The men wore unmarked uniforms so it was impossible to tell what branch of the military they were from.

“We had no idea they were coming; we just heard helicopters coming toward the landing pad (at the field hospital),” said Deighton. “There was Red Air that day, which meant no one was supposed to fly, so we were pretty surprised.”

She said one of the men was bleeding heavily from a deep kidney laceration and the blood bank on the base was too depleted to provide the transfusion he needed. When a Medevac was denied because of the weather she looked at her lieutenant and said, “If we don’t get this guy out of there, he’s going to die.”

Deighton said the lieutenant had been observing the men that he correctly guessed were Navy SEALS and noticed that one seemed to be directing the movements of the others. The junior officer went over to that individual and whispered in his ear that either a phone number had to be provided for someone who could help or one of his men was going to die.

“He gave the lieutenant a number and minutes after that call was made, a bird (helo) flew down and picked those guys up and took them off into the night,” she said.

The next day, the commander of her unit received a call of thanks from a Pentagon official for their care of the SEAL team.

“That happened right after I got there and I thought the whole tour was going to be like that – I’m thankful it wasn’t,” said Deighton.

It is time, she said, for life to be more peaceful. At the age of 41, she enjoys fishing horseback riding, archery – she was a state champion in high school – and plans on learning how to hunt. She is also trying to figure out how to get her duck, which was raised with chicken, to like water.

“Not sure what to do about that one,” she said.

Deighton looks forward to meeting other veterans and providing medical services to families in the community.

“My experiences in Iraq have made me very resilient and given me a great amount of empathy and compassion; I have become a really good listener,” she said.