My Kind of Medicine: Real Lives of Practicing Internists: LTC(P) Kent J. DeZee, MD, MPH, FACP, MC, US
Army Lieutenant Colonel (Dr.) Kent DeZee laughs as he recalls the good-natured, jealousy-inspired ribbing he received from fellow medical students in Ohio when news of his residency match at Tripler Army Medical Center (AMC) in Honolulu, Hawaii was announced.
Was it mere chance that an ROTC medical student from the frosty state of Ohio was assigned to do his medical internship and residency in the sunny islands of Hawaii? And was it beginner’s luck when the Tripler AMC pulmonary department took him surfing and he successfully rode his first wave? Probably—but Hawaiians are more likely to attribute Dr. DeZee’s good fortune to “aumakua,” his ancestral guardian spirit. In Hawaiian culture, the aumakua is a revered member of the ohana (meaning “family”) who imparts wisdom or intercedes on behalf of members of the ohana.
At the time of his residency, Dr. DeZee was a young father whose daughter Madeline’s love for the Disney film Lilo and Stitch familiarized him with the Hawaiian culture of ohana, but aumakua? Well, it’s hardly the stuff that an earnest student of science would give any credence to.
From zee to shining zee
Dr. DeZee’s assignment to Hawaii and his surfing skills may have had nothing to do with ancestral spirits working on his behalf, but he does have ancestral ties to a nation with a rich maritime history—the Netherlands—and, despite his commitment to America’s land troops, he might come from a long line of mariners. The Dutch name DeZee means “of the sea,” and according to Dr. DeZee, his clan hails from Rotterdam, one of the largest ports in the world.
In addition to his Dutch ancestry, there are sailors in Dr. DeZee’s immediate lineage who have played a critical role in his life. Both his father and grandfather served in the U.S. Navy. His father served aboard the mine sweeper USS Embattle during the Vietnam War, and his grandfather served in the Pacific aboard the aircraft carrier USS Hancock during WWII.
Despite the allure of sandy beaches and surfboards, Dr. DeZee had no intention of resting on his laurels. After completing his residency and then serving as Assistant Program Director at Tripler, he was eager to do research, publish articles, and advance his career as an educational leader. So, much to the chagrin of then 5-year-old Madeline, Dr. DeZee and family returned to the mainland where he began his Fellowship program in General Medicine at Uniformed Services University in Bethesda, MD, studying epidemiology and earning his master’s degree in public health.
“One of the best things about being a military physician,” says Dr. DeZee, “are the educational opportunities available to us.” Uniformed Services University, also called “America’s Medical School,” is the only federal medical school in the United States. “USU students receive the same medical education offered by civilian medical schools,” says Dr. DeZee, “but USU provides extra training that is military specific, like learning about the medical effects of ballistics, chemical & biological warfare, trauma care, and how to work in a field environment.”
Today, Dr. DeZee serves as program director for the same 2-year fellowship program at USU that he graduated from, a program that helps internists focus on becoming clinician-administrators, clinician- educators, or clinician-researchers. Since completing his fellowship, he has taught numerous graduate medical education courses, received several military and academic awards, delivered professional presentations at regional, national and international meetings, and published a vast array of articles for peer-reviewed publications.
In addition to his extensive administrative and teaching experience, Dr. DeZee has clocked in hundreds of clinical hours at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. He also served on humanitarian missions to Chuuk, one of the four Federated States of Micronesia, and completed a combat deployment to Iraq where he served as staff internist for a combat hospital. “It is an honor and a privilege to care for America’s heroes and train the next generation of America’s military doctors,” says Dr. DeZee, “If that doesn’t get you up in the morning, you need to find another job.”
All in the family
Dr. DeZee says he was interested in a career in medicine from an early age. He was a smart kid growing up in a small blue collar town (pop. 3,500) in Ohio that offered little exposure to professional careers, but he knew that he liked science and wanted to help people. After getting an ROTC scholarship to the University of Miami where he majored in biology, Dr. DeZee went on to attend medical school at The Ohio State University College of Medicine. During his third year, he chose internal medicine.
“I chose internal medicine,” says Dr. DeZee, “because I decided that I really liked talking to people and helping people with problems that weren’t easy to figure out. I wanted to be challenged. I also liked the idea of long-term relationships with people who really need you.”
Like the Hawaiian culture of ohana, family and long-term relationships are highly valued by Dr. DeZee. He credits his mother for teaching him the value of education, his father, the value of hard work, and like his wife Tiffany, who is a teacher, he has a passion for helping others achieve their goals. “In the military, you collect a lot of mentors, people who look out for you, and who help you to succeed,” says Dr. DeZee. “When my patients do well, or when my trainees get board certified, and go on to lead their own research projects or their own educational divisions—that is what I find most rewarding.”
Another rewarding experience for Dr. DeZee has been his involvement with ACP. He got involved when he was just an intern, citing the influence of physician mentors who told him about the benefits of MKSAP and ACP’s annual meeting. Over the years, he became increasingly involved with the ACP Army Chapter and last year he was elected by his peers to serve as ACP Governor.
In addition to his career, Dr. DeZee likes to exercise and bikes to work every day, but his greatest pleasure is spending time with his family. Madeline, now a sophomore in high school, loves science, and son, Luke, is a third-grader who loves sports. “Another perk of military service,” says Dr. DeZee, “is that members and their families can enjoy travel by flying ‘space available’ in military aircraft.” Last summer the DeZee family flew to Europe on a C-17 and came back on a C-5 (“The plane you can drive a tank in through the nose,” he explains.). They toured six countries, including the Netherlands, and visited the American cemeteries at Omaha Beach and Luxembourg where General Patton is buried.
This summer, the family will be traveling again, but for a different reason—Dr. DeZee is being assigned to a new duty station. Most children would not relish the prospect of registering for new schools and finding new friends, but Dr. DeZee’s children are not complaining. Seems the DeZee family is heading back to Hawaii where Dr. DeZee will be taking on new leadership positions.
Aloha, Dr. DeZee. May the wind be at your back and may the aumakua always be with you.
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