World-renowned Cardiologist Trades in Lab Coat for Uniform
By Elaine Wilson
Special to American Forces Press Service
FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas, Feb. 9, 2006 With credentials as an Ivy League-college graduate, world-renowned cardiologist and top-ranked university vice president, Dr. Ward Casscells never had a lack of respect -- or success.
Army Col. Ward Casscells prepares for a marksmanship test Jan. 26 while receiving last-minute advice from retired Army 1st Sgt. John Kearney, Officer Basic Course instructor, at Camp Bullis. Casscells graduated from the Feb. 3. Photo by Elaine Wilson
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
The tireless Casscells is a teacher, doctor and champion of humanitarian relief, with countless hours spent tending to victims of hurricanes, tsunamis and terrorist acts. His studies have led to breakthroughs in cardiology, and his years of research on now-spreading avian flu are now deemed cutting edge.
Casscells has served on President Bush's health care advisory committee, at the forefront of humanitarian relief efforts such as Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 South Asian tsunami.
With more than 30 years of accomplishments behind him, the sky was the limit for Casscells' future. However, instead of a pursuit of fortune or fame, at age 53, Casscells chose a decidedly more modest, and to some shocking, route - the U.S. Army.
"People told me I was too old, not physically fit enough or won't be senior enough to be able to do anything interesting," Casscells said. "None of that was true." In June 2005, Casscells traded his lab coat for a uniform and joined the Army Reserve as a colonel.
While the decision may have seemed abrupt to many of his family and friends, it was a long time coming for Casscells.
The Delaware native has lived a seemingly charmed life. He went to Yale University in Connecticut, then Harvard University in Boston, where he earned his medical degree.
After his residency, he worked at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., for six years. From there, he moved to Texas as chief of cardiology at the University of Texas-Houston Medical School, where he helped draw a connection between heart attacks and the flu, then branched out into avian flu research.
With a full work and family schedule, Casscells was busier than ever. But in the midst of his labors, his life came to an abrupt halt one night in 2001, after he felt a growth in his abdomen. It was cancer.
"It was bad," Casscells said. "I went through five years of chemotherapy and radiation. After I went through that, I wanted to do things I hadn't done before."
He decided on a path when cleaning out a closet. "I saw my dad's tattered old uniform. He served four years with (Gen. George) Patton in World War II. I figured if he could give four years of his life, I could give three months a year as a reservist."
The idea became a reality after he was medically cleared to enter the Army Reserve. He joined last summer and was almost immediately activated as the Army had an urgent need for someone with avian flu expertise.
He said Army Surgeon General Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley mobilized him to his command. "He recognized the seriousness of the bird flu and wanted the Army to be prepared," Casscells said. "I volunteered to go to the Middle and Far East to do surveillance."
During a whirlwind tour, Casscells said he traveled alone to places like Cairo, Egypt; Beijing; and Bangkok, Thailand, to scope out the possibility for a widespread outbreak.
"Bird flu is poised to be an explosive problem," Casscells said. "I give General Kiley a lot of credit for wanting to be at the forefront of medical planning."
After months abroad, Casscells made a much shorter trip from his Austin, Texas, home. In January, he traveled to San Antonio to attend the two-week reserve Officer Basic Course at Fort Sam Houston. The course is geared toward medical professionals like Casscells, with attendees from all walks of medical life, from nurses and pharmacists to psychiatrists and surgeons.
Run ragged with training, a sleep-deprived and physically exhausted Casscells found the course to be, surprisingly, one of the biggest challenges of his life.
"This course is 'shock and awe' for me," he said. "I haven't been this tired and intimidated since I was an intern. It's scarier, more intense than I thought."
The instructors plan it that way. "Many of these officers come from privilege or worked their way through school, but still don't know what it's like to do without," said Capt. Darren Teters, course instructor. "They've never been without a shower for two or three days or had their food limited.
"But we have to train them the same as privates," he added. "Whether doctors or nurses, they will have responsibility and will have to rely (on) what they learn here."
The officer-students range from second lieutenants to colonels, with varying degrees of success in the civilian sector. Rank and job status, however, have a limited role at OBC, Casscells said.
Despite some trepidation, Casscells passed the course with flying colors and graduated Feb. 3. "We (class members) are all so proud to have gotten through it," he said. "It was dead on.
"As a teacher, I've been enormously impressed with how seriously the instructors take training," he added. "The Army attracts better people than you expect and trains better than you can believe."
Finished with training, Casscells can now resume his esteemed career. But his future plans are unlikely to garner fame or fortune.
"I volunteered to go to Iraq," he said. "I don't want to backfill; I want to go to where I'm most needed. And doctors are needed in Iraq."
(Elaine Wilson is editor of the Fort Sam Houston Texas News-Leader.)