WALTER REED NATIONAL MILITARY MEDICAL CENTER, D.C. –
“If you ask me who I am the first thing I would tell you is, ‘I am a surgeon. It is my identity.’ I care deeply about taking great care of others and working as a team,” said Air Force Lt. Col. (Dr.) Kerry Latham,
A 779th Medical Group* plastic surgeon stationed at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Latham is one of a number of women physicians at the “flagship of military medicine” who are appreciated every day for the care they provide America’s sons and daughters. Those women physicians are especially celebrated on Feb. 3, National Women Physicians Day, which honors the path female doctors have paved since 1849 when Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States. Blackwell was born Feb. 3, 1821 in England and earned her medical degree from Geneva Medical College (currently known as Hobart and William Smith Colleges, in upstate New York on Jan. 23, 1849.
Like many physicians, men and women, Latham said the most rewarding aspects of her job are “the people” – the patients and the team members with whom she works.
“It’s awesome to help people and work with a team of like-minded selfless providers with integrity and empathy who are focused on great patient outcomes,” Latham said.
A native of Potomac, Maryland, Latham’s medical education includes degrees from Princeton University, and she is a graduate of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USU). She also did general surgery residency at Wilford Hall Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, and plastic surgery residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, Florida.
Latham said she became interested in medicine as a young girl. “I knew I wanted to help people, and I like problem solving. [Medicine] seemed like a good fit,” she explained.
A specialist in craniofacial and pediatric plastic surgery, Latham explained how a humanitarian mission to the Philippines as a medical student at USU also influenced her career choice.
“I met a teenage boy with an unrepaired cleft lip. He told me, through a translator, that he wanted to have surgery to fix his lip. He said he was in love with a girl in town, but she would not marry him because he had an unrepaired cleft lip. He also said when he was a little boy, another mission had come, but he was sick so they could not do his surgery. He said he had been waiting many years for surgeons to come back to help him.
“I helped the surgeon do his cleft lip repair,” she continued. “I had never seen a cleft lip surgery. It was amazing. The surgery took two hours and the teenage boy did very well. I went to see him the next morning and he was lying on a stretcher and a very pretty teenage girl was sitting with him. They were so happy together and she was looking at him so affectionately. He was smiling broadly and I know that she was the girl he loved. I was elated.
“In that moment, I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” Latham said. “I could not believe that in a couple of hours a plastic surgeon can improve people’s lives so dramatically. What an incredible profession.”
Latham deployed to Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan her first year out of residency, and she was the only U.S. reconstructive surgeon on site. There, she helped wounded warriors, those who had been severely burned or injured with bullets or projectiles, as well as Afghan children with birth defects such as cleft lips or with injuries to extremities such as those sustained from stepping on landmines.
For the past several years while on staff at WRNMMC, Latham has led several humanitarian missions the Dominican Republic to provide medical evaluation and surgical treatment to DR citizens with cleft lip and palate, hand and craniofacial abnormalities.
In regards to being a woman and a military physician, Latham said, “I think the best part is that I am just like everyone else. I have great experiences, but I am not treated differently because I am female.
“My greatest achievement happens every time a patient tells me they are happy with the result of their surgery. I like to make people happier and healthier,” she added.
Latham is currently on a temporary duty assignment in Alaska, directing and participating in a plastic surgery visiting surgeon program at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. Her advice for women considering careers in medicine: “Go for it. I think the proverb that ‘A good surgeon has the eye of an eagle, the heart of a lion, and the hand of a lady,’ might be right.”
The Army Surgeon General Lt. Gen. (Dr.) Nadja West, also has ties to WRNMMC. The D.C. native was deputy commander for integration at the National Naval Medical Center (NNMC), Bethesda, Maryland, where she became the first Army officer to join the leadership team at NNMC, prior to its integration with Walter Reed Army Medical Center to become the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMMC).
Although West holds a number of first (first black Army Surgeon General; first black female active duty major general; first black female major general in Army Medicine; first Army black female lieutenant general; and highest ranking female to have graduated from the United States Military Academy), she says of her achievements: “I never really thought about that part. My parents taught me to work hard and be the best I can be and things will work out. I’m just really honored. If anything at all, I hope I can be an inspiration to any one or any group that has not seen themselves in certain positions. We all want to see people who look like us doing certain things to give us inspiration. Hopefully, I can inspire someone to be able to say, ‘I can do that.’”
* The 779th Medical Group has medics working across the National Capital Region (NCR) including Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Md.; Fort Belvoir Community Hospital, Va.; Fort George Meade, Md., and the Pentagon.