He’s a volunteer for the Defense and State Departments and a self-described “accidental doctor” who didn’t become a YO until his 40s. Meet Michael W. Brennan, MD, the Academy's 2009 president. In a YO Info exclusive, this fascinating ophthalmologist shares how his passion for exploration led to a group practice in Burlington, N.C. and leadership in his profession.
I am an accidental doctor. I attended West Point the U.S. Military Academy, with the intention of becoming an astronaut. After graduation, I was an aviator for the Army Intelligence Agency during the Vietnam War. After the war, I pursued my dream by attending Stanford University’s aeronautics and astronautics masters program, but quickly realized that the high math was not my strong suit, so I took a moment to weigh my options.
At heart, I am an explorer, and thanks to the Army, I was able to explore my career possibilities. I think this is important for everyone. I firmly believe that you should not commit too soon. Take the time to explore the pathways that are available to you.
In my case, after Stanford, I taught at West Point for a year, then decided to attend medical school at the University of Texas, San Antonio. I completed my internship and ophthalmology residency at Brooke Army Medical Center. I opted not to do a fellowship, as I felt it was better to be a generalist and opportunist than to lock myself into one specific discipline. I believe that if you focus too quickly, you limit your ability to explore other exciting opportunities.
After graduation, I served as chief of surgery at Fort Bragg, N.C., developing my experience as a comprehensive ophthalmologist. I briefly considered joining the special operations group of the Army, but as a husband and father of four, family was a concern. So, after a 20-year career in the Army, I retired in 1986. This meant that I didn’t become a true "YO" until I was 42 years old!
Once I retired from military service, I joined a group ophthalmology practice in Burlington, N.C., and I’ve been happy with my patients and partners ever since. I believe that once you make a decision, you need to stick to it and honor your commitments. In my case, I didn’t use a lawyer or sign a contract. I simply explored all of my options, found great partners, made a commitment to them and the community and sealed the deal with a handshake. While this arrangement worked for me, I recognize that is not necessarily good legal/contractual advice.
Two ophthalmologists really helped shape me as a physician. The first was John Shock, MD, chair of the residency program at Brooke. Like me, he was an army physician who also attended West Point. At that time, I wanted to be an ophthalmologist just like John Shock.
The other mentor was Art Chandler, MD, a reserve ophthalmologist from Duke University who served at Fort Bragg on weekends. Art taught me surgical skills as well as a dedication to clinical excellence and responsibility to the patient. His commitments to the profession as well as the nation are qualities I embraced and work to exhibit myself.
Engagement with the Academy
During my days as an Army physician, I was not an active member of the Academy. Historically, military ophthalmologists really only attended the Annual Meeting and did not appreciate active involvement. As a result, I didn’t really know much about the Academy.
Once I joined a private practice, I got involved with the North Carolina Society of Eye Physicians and Surgeons. I have always believed that membership, like advocacy, begins at home. I worked to become a member and leader at the state level first, in my medical and eye societies. I believe that the most fundamental decisions that influence patients and our profession occur at the state and local level. Racing to be a national figure without understanding local politics is shortsighted.
I soon began to get involved with the Academy at the national level. After a variety of state and national governmental affairs positions, I was privileged to serve as the Academy’s international envoy. Now I am honored to accept the position of president of the Academy, while continuing to serve as an international medical volunteer.
As I reflect on my career, I realize that the Army gave me the ability to explore dreams and opportunities, ophthalmology gave me an exciting and noble career and the Academy gave me a home.
My Goals for 2009
This year presents many challenges. On the national level, a high priority is to ensure that the Academy is prepared to deal with a new presidential administration in the White House. Closer to home, I will work to make the EVP transition from H. Dunbar Hoskins Jr., MD, to David W. Parke II, MD, as smooth as possible—no problem here.
We’re also dealing with these difficult economic times, and I think the key to weathering this storm is practice efficiency. To help members accomplish this, I would like to see the Academy promote the benefits of an integrated eye care system to enhance accessibility, affordability and accountability. This means:
- Sharing resources across regional practices;
- Aligning private and university practices;
- Accenting certified technicians with economy and professionalism in their education;
- Employing optometrists to add diversity of services to include contact lenses and low vision;
- Empowering a robust practice administration well versed in AAOE programs;
- Collaborating with national subspecialty societies on educational and advocacy efforts; and
- Communicating our capacities to our fellow physicians and the public.
The Role of YOs
The best way for young ophthalmologists to first get involved is at the state and local level. Our state eye societies are challenged and need your membership and vigorous support to ensure the future of the profession and to make life much more pleasant for your successors. Plus, there are immediate leadership positions available at the state and local levels.
Along the way, never forget to demonstrate respect for your organizational staff. You may have a great idea, but nothing good ever happens without the team effort, which includes executive and administrative expertise. This goes for your practice as well. My most valuable practice partners are actually my technicians and administrative staff as much as my physician colleagues.
You can also volunteer to lead a project or serve on a committee. By making an impact at the state level, a national leader will reach out to you. Then you can take what you’ve learned locally and bring it to the next level. I’ve found that the Academy is very willing to listen to eager voices backed by proven commitment. We’ve made a concerted effort to incorporate YOs into a wide variety of Academy programs and committees. We want your expertise, insight, and energy. And we WILL listen.
If you are true explorer, you can take advantage of the myriad of international opportunities that are available. There are multi-national congresses, as well as committee work in Global Alliances. You can also volunteer with any of the non-governmental organizations that the Academy endorses, including ORBIS, Project Hope or International Medical Corps. This is a great opportunity to meet counterparts from other countries and I’ve personally found that you always learn more from your international colleagues than you teach.
As you can see, this is an exciting time for the Academy and for young ophthalmologists. You have a voice you didn’t have 20 years ago. Take advantage of it … it will only benefit you, your patients and the profession.