Only at Emory: By Way of the Road Less Traveled
By Charles A. MacNeill 77M
In 1972, I was honorably discharged from the US Army, skilled as a linguist in Vietnamese (Northern dialect), translator of purloined public health documents, and a field-hardened code breaker, all courtesy of the Army and National Security agencies. In April of that year, after three-and-a-half years of Army service, my wife and I left Fort Meade, Maryland, and moved back to my home, Decatur, Georgia. Plans for our future were made and changed many times prior to my discharge. Little did I know the major role Emory would play in my life thereafter.
The year 1968 would prove to be a miserable one for the United States, but for me, I thought it started out just fine. I was finishing my senior year of college and in January became engaged to be married. In March, I was accepted into the MBA program at Wharton School of Finance, University of Pennsylvania, and named a Joseph Wharton Fellow, with full tuition and living expense stipend to boot; my future looked quite secure. In May, I graduated from Florida Presbyterian College (now Eckerd College) with a degree in mathematics and immediately found an excellent summer job to finance the upcoming honeymoon scheduled for August. In late July, I attended an early orientation course at Wharton and leased an apartment just off campus. The draft notice arrived one week before the wedding date; that morning, we had been in Decatur obtaining a marriage license. I panicked. We decided to go through with wedding plans knowing the church would be full. I understood that in 1968, every draftee was sent to Vietnam following basic and advanced training, and though not an active anti-war demonstrator, I had no real desire to go. The army recruiter at the Ponce de Leon military depot in Atlanta was very convincing. For an extra two years service, four years in all, he would make very sure my new wife and I would spend three years in Germany. At the end of basic training, my orders were to proceed to Vietnamese Language School, and I knew something was amiss.
A year and a half learning the language, a year in rural Vietnam, and a final year at NSA gave me plenty of time to consider what life would be like post-Army. As time to discharge came closer, many discussions with my wife and both sets of parents made it clear the future was not so secure this time. I knew mathematics was not for me and my newfound distaste for the “chain of command” caused me to turn away from Wharton and subsequent corporate life, though the offer was still good. While in Vietnam, I had experienced interpreting for English-speaking physicians making daily rounds in a village hospital and at NSA I had translated public health documents from North Vietnam, so I figured, why not give medicine a try. Unfortunately, I had forgotten to take any premed courses while in college.
Growing up in Decatur, Emory was a place to sneak onto the tennis courts, read about Shakespeare and Bacon in the library, or go to Sunday lunch with the family at the brand-new student cafeteria. Emory was not a place I wanted to go to college because it would be like going to school at home. But after the army, Emory now looked like it might be the “promised land.” Upon returning to Decatur in April 1972, I inquired at the Emory Medical School Admissions Office and was sent to speak with Dr. Peter Bain. He was not dismissive and encouraged me to give the premed courses a try. He suggested I attend Emory or Georgia Tech, and introduced me to Dr. Robert Rohrer, physics professor. Dr. Rohrer listened and allowed me to take all three quarters of physics during the summer session at Emory. Then Georgia Tech obliged, and by June 1973, all premed course work was complete. Despite my increased age and basic minimum of scientific study, Emory saw fit to admit me to medical school for the 1973-1974 school year.
Medical school was interesting, challenging, and relatively fun, but it was not cheap. My wife was teaching full-time in DeKalb County, the GI bill provided $300 per month, and various loans helped defray education costs, but we still needed sustenance and heat. I needed a part-time job that was flexible and required no added transportation. The bulletin board at the Emory Allied Health building offered a position at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in the Department of Nutrition and Smallpox Eradication. The CDC needed a statistician to help with recent nutrition studies of the Blackfeet Indians, so what could be better for a reformed mathematician? The job fit well with the rigors of medical school and Dr. Milton Nichaman and Dr. Michael Lane, co-heads of this department, provided the fodder to author two articles in nutrition publications; published and not yet out of medical school. I was also rewarded with a summer job accompanying Albert Schweitzer’s daughter, Rena Schweitzer-Miller, to test field equipment measuring Indian babies in the American Southwest.
The fall of Saigon occurred in April 1975, as I ended my sophomore year of medical school. The thousands of escapees, refugees, and boat people leaving South Vietnam needed a place to go and the United States opened multiple resettlement camps in the US. One day in May, Dr. William Foege, then Director of the CDC, asked me to come by his office. He asked if I would be available to go to the camp at Fort Indian Town Gap, Pennsylvania, to help with setting up the Public Health Department for the refugees. I joined a team of about fifteen local and CDC Public Health officers and spent most of the month testing for TB and roundworms. Later, I was assigned to go barracks by barracks looking for victims of Hansen’s disease, or leprosy. I was able to use my language skills to reduce refugee anxiety and by the end of the month, I was probably the most experienced screener for leprosy in the country.
I graduated from Emory medical school in 1977, completed a residency in anesthesia at Grady and Emory, and started in the private practice of anesthesia and pain medicine in 1980, first at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Atlanta and then my own private practice of pain medicine in 1996.
Only at Emory did I have a chance of admission to medical school as a local resident with no premed courses and four years out of school.
Only at Emory would the admissions staff and professors work with me to complete all premed requirements in one year.
Only at Emory would a part-time job at the CDC be possible, enabling me to combine medicine, mathematics, and Vietnamese in a meaningful and timely manner.
Only at Emory could I have been mentored for three years by Evan Frederickson, master of anesthesia techniques for treatment of chronic pain, training that has served me well for the past thirty years.