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My Kind of Medicine: Real Lives of Practicing Internists: Major Travis Richardson, MD, FACP

Major Travis Richardson, MD, FACP

As a boy, during his family’s annual trip to South Carolina to visit extended family, Travis Richardson would make the three-mile walk to the corner store to buy milk and flour for his grandmother. She was a diabetic and a subsequent amputee, and seeing this made Travis yearn to ease her discomfort. He would also be troubled by the health problems of his other relatives. As a child, he didn’t fully understand the illnesses at the time, although he knew that there were problems with “sugar” and “blood pressure” and he understood that it caused a great deal of suffering and stress, particularly for his grandmother. At the time, his ability to help was limited. “I would think to myself, ‘what can I do to help?’” he says. But by the time he reached high school, he knew the answer to that question, and he’s been helping people ever since.

One for All, All for One

Dr. Richardson knew himself well at an early age, and sought out a path to fit his needs and ambitions. As an undergrad at Johns Hopkins University, he decided he would go into primary care, and later on at medical school at Howard University, he was sold on internal medicine after one rotation. “One of the great things about internal medicine is the variety and flexibility,” he says, “and I liked the fact that is focuses on adults. That’s what I wanted to do. It matched me perfectly.” He was also influenced by his program director, who he says has been instrumental in crafting him into the physician he is today. “No matter how stressful a situation was, he always had an even keel,” he remembers. “He made things that were difficult easy.”

It was an approach he would emulate and later come close to perfecting in his own career, although he accomplished it in his own, unique way with the second big chapter in his life—joining the Army. He entered after college prior to starting medical school. Because of his relative maturity compared to his peers, most of whom were younger, Dr. Richardson was promoted quickly and was the highest ranking person at his boot camp in Fort Benning, in Georgia. His superiors chose him to be platoon leader, a role that had its ups and downs. “Every time someone’s boots weren’t right, I had to do 100 push-ups!” he recalls. Thousands of push-ups later, Dr. Richardson was still thriving in the military; he had found a natural fit for what he craved both personally and professionally. While he needed structure and routine—“I like things to go a certain way,” he says—he also wanted meaningful relationships and interactions with others. “I’m outgoing. I like to talk to people and find out things about them.”

He completed his internship at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C, where he felt an immediate camaraderie with the staff and patients. “It’s a military hospital so I relate to the people,” he says. “These are veterans and retirees so I feel a special connection to them.” He adds that the working environment itself is also a big plus, because of the fact that Walter Reed is a non-profit hospital. “We have the freedom to practice medicine without constrictions. We can focus on the patient in front of us.”

One of his first assignments was as an Assistant Chief of the Internal Medicine Clinic at Fort Benning. The role came with a lot of responsibility, as Dr. Richardson had to act in capacities normally handled by subspecialists in the private sector. “All of the Army hospitals are community hospitals, so there are not a lot of subspecialists. You’re it … you’re the cardiologist, the pulmonologist … that’s the great thing about it though, because with that kind of background, you see so much and your skills are fresh…you’re ready for anything. It really goes a long way to improve your confidence.”

The Human Connection

Dr. Richardson has been deployed twice, the first time to Kuwait in 2002, and the second to Iraq in 2008. He says deployment during a war is hardest on families, which he sees the effects of first-hand, often treating men from the front lines who have lost limbs and suffered traumatic head injuries. It’s the not knowing, he says, that gets to people, including his own family. “It’s the 800-pound gorilla in the room,” he says. For his most recent trip, he oversaw and treated patients in a detainee medical facility, which meant that he was treating the enemy. The job requires the utmost of professionalism, as there are times when the staff is aware of a specific incident or incidents that a patient might have been directly responsible for or involved in. The job calls for sensitivity and restraint, but the Army doesn’t make considerations in terms of hand-picking the staff, because as Dr. Richardson explains, they operate under the assumption that all soldiers maintain professional conduct at all times. “It is the true definition of the Hippocratic Oath,” he explains, “You remove yourself from who they are and you treat them. You have to treat them as if they were your own mother.”

It’s a lesson he teaches students as well. Today, working as the Assistant Chief of the Department of Medicine at Walter Reed, he enjoys watching the transformation from student to physician, and being a part of it. “ It’s kind of neat seeing a student come in, not even knowing how to listen to the heart, and years later seeing them teaching themselves.” He also gains pleasure from knowing his patients. “I love seeing my patients. There are some I’ve been treating for 10 years now. I’d say the biggest accomplishment in my career has been dealing one-on-one with each of my patients. Seeing the expressions on their faces and the look in their eyes … you can’t put a price on it.”

He talks of one patient who had come to him with bad pain throughout her entire body. The woman had been bounced back and forth between doctors, and she felt that none of them had really made a concerted effort to figure it out. For years, she couldn’t sleep properly and by the time she reached Dr. Richardson she broke down into tears during the first interview. Dr. Richardson spent a good deal of time with her, making sure he was thorough in his testing and interviewing. Finally, he came to the conclusion that the patient was likely suffering from fibromyalgia, and he began treating her for it. Several weeks later the patient returned. “She was laughing and smiling,” Dr. Richardson recalls, “the treatment worked. She was so happy and so grateful … she thought I was the best thing since sliced bread! That’s why I love my job. It’s the things like that that stick with me.”

The Promise Keeper

Now when Dr. Richardson visits South Carolina to see family, he no longer makes the long walk to the corner store, but the memory of his grandmother remains. He lives in suburban Maryland, outside of Washington, D.C., with his wife of 15 years and three daughters, the oldest of whom just went off for her first year at Howard University. In his free time, Dr. Richardson is very involved in his church, for which he participates in a men’s support group, something he also has done during deployment. The groups are a source of support for members, who learn to count on one another when times get tough. Dr. Richardson likens it to the promise keeper movement and believes the spiritual support has helped him be a better physician, soldier, father and husband. He is satisfied and fulfilled in his life and says that choosing the career path and making the choices he did made it happen. “For me, going into internal medicine and also the Army has suited my goals and personality like a glove. I have been able to apply the skills I learned in every one of my jobs. Everything has happened perfectly, I have no regrets.”

Check out previous articles as physicians share what motivated them to become physicians as well as why they chose their particular type of practice.

Back to September 2009 Issue of IMpact

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