On Veterans Day, We Honor Those Who Serve

Veterans Day is a time to recognize individuals who have made the honorable decision to protect our country's freedom through military service. Below, we are honoring four of our of our very own faculty members and learners who have served our country, are serving our country, or are committed to serving our country in the most selfless of ways - through the military and in health care. 

Dr. Patrick Sullivan: A Commitment to Serve Kentucky and Beyond

Pfc. Patrick Sullivan, PhD, has maintained a longstanding commitment to serve the Commonwealth. A fifth-generation Kentuckian, he graduated with his bachelor’s degree and his doctorate at the University of Kentucky with a goal of helping solve some of the state’s most pressing health concerns. After a two-year post-doctoral fellowship at the Reeve-Irvine Spinal Cord Injury Research Center at the University of California, Irvine, he was recruited to join UK as an assistant professor in 2002.

Before serving Kentucky as a researcher, Dr. Sullivan served the country as a satellite controller in the U.S. Army, 15 months active duty and eight years in the reserves. He recalls watching the ending of Operation Desert Storm on the television in his barracks’ recreation room, and he thinks fondly of the “unmatched” camaraderie he built while in boot camp and in training. 

Dr. Sullivan’s experience in the Army taught him, among other lessons, that one can accomplish anything with the proper planning, training, and execution. He practices this as both an educator and a researcher.

Dr. Sullivan is a professor of neuroscience and holds an endowed chair with the UK Spinal Cord and Brain Injury Research Center (SCoBIRC). He studies traumatic brain and spinal cord injuries, with a specific focus on mitochondrial bioenergetics in acute and chronic diseases. His goal in his research is to find novel mitoceuticals.

“How the brain works and consciousness has always fascinated me, especially since we know most of the parts, but we don’t understand how they work together to any real depth,” he said. “One way to begin to understand this is to look at what happens when the system is damaged.”

Dr. Sullivan’s research in neuroscience has made a significant impact, even his earliest work. In fact, one of the compounds he worked on as a graduate student is currently in ongoing clinical trials in Europe.

Now, he is working on two major projects. One, funded by a VA merit award, involves improving mitochondrial function following brain injury by targeting a novel mitochondrial protein that seems to act as a circuit breaker following injury. Another, this one funded through a National Institutes of Health grant, involves pre-clinical efficacy testing of a novel mitochondrial uncoupler to improve outcomes after injury.

Dr. Sullivan is serving his home state, leading his classroom and his laboratory with Kentucky’s urgent health needs in mind.

Dr. McKayla Riggs: Medical Training Preparing Her for Role in the Air Force

Capt. McKayla Riggs, MD, is a second-year Gyn-Oncology fellow at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine. She also is an active duty member of the U.S. Air Force.

Dr. Riggs joined the military during her second year of medical school. Ever since, she has balanced her clinical training with her military training while working toward a job as an Air Force gynecologic oncologist. As she learns the ins and outs of her medical specialty, she also takes physical fitness tests and keeps up with her military web-based trainings.

“I see my medical training as part of my job as an active duty airman,” she said.

Making the switch from a military hospital to the University of Kentucky’s hospital system, UK HealthCare, took adjustment. It was a transition made simpler through connecting with other doctors who share military experience.  

“Though the atmosphere is different, the military side of life never seems too far away,” Dr. Riggs said. “The retired military physicians at UK have felt like an interwoven support system built in to help me succeed and transition. The mentorship I’ve received, and still continue to receive, has been unmatched.”

Dr. Riggs decided to pursue medicine because, like many physicians, she felt it was her calling to help people. She always wanted to become an OB/GYN who served a small town and filled a need; however, now she is working towards a career in gynecologic oncology and hopes to continue in academic medicine, either with a fellowship program or residency program, so she can help shape the future health care workforce.

She said she enjoys teaching and being surrounded by learners who add value to her work days.

Dr. Riggs’s ultimate career goals are to make a difference in the lives of her patients, the learners with whom she interacts, and in the process, to be a great wife for her supportive husband and a great mother for her 2-year-old son.

Doug Nash: Following a Life of Servant Leadership

Maj. Doug Nash spent nine years serving in the U.S. Marine Corps on active duty and four years in the reserves. He flew CH-53E Super Stallion assault support helicopters in both combat and peacekeeping operations, with deployments to eight countries.

“Serving with fellow citizens of all walks of life and backgrounds under singular focus and mutual protection is something I’ll never forget,” Nash said. “I always knew that even if things got ugly during a sortie, there would be men and women fighting over each other to come to our aide.”

Through these deployments he learned the value of servant leadership, a lesson he cherishes as he continues serving others in his next career as a future physician.

Nash is a first-year medical student at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine-Bowling Green Campus. Health care was a perfect next step for him because it offered many of the hallmarks he loved from his previous career in the military: dedication to a cause bigger than yourself, commitment to ongoing education, and a daily atmosphere of gravitas that demands your very best.

“As Marine officers, we’re taught to eat last, arrive first, and set the example ourselves for what we expect of others,” Nash said. He holds dear the words of Gen. James Mattis, former U.S. Secretary of Defense, that “everyone fills sandbags in the unit.” In other words, no one is above the dirty work.

Another quote from Gen. Mattis that resonates with Nash is “attitudes are caught, not taught.” Nash said that describes his experience so far as a student at the Bowling Green Campus. The regional campus, which opened in 2018, offers the same competitive curriculum at all UK College of Medicine campuses, including its main campus in Lexington, while fostering intimate class settings and a tight-knit team of faculty, staff, and learners.

That team approach Nash enjoys at the Bowling Green Campus is something he looks forward to when he becomes a doctor. Health care, after all, is a team sport. Sometimes, physicians are responsible to take charge of a situation. Other times, they rely on others.

“I think the most valuable perspective I bring is a realization that the problems a clinical team faces require cohesion to address, and that it’s a physician’s role to behave appropriately and enthusiastically given that understanding,” Nash said. “Given the stakes at hand every day in a hospital, I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of working alongside providers to improve the lives within our community.”

Gabbie Collins: Continuing Her Family’s Tradition

You could say that a passion for serving others runs in 2nd Lt. Gabbie Collins’s family.

Her father was enlisted in the U.S. Army and became an armor officer. Her mother was a nurse anesthetist in the Army who served three tours in Iraq and taught Collins the importance of equity and justice in health care. Together, sharing stories of their experiences, her parents made the military and medicine “sound like a big adventure.” Collins was captivated.

She is continuing her family’s tradition by pursuing both careers. She is currently a first-year student at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine’s main campus in Lexington, receiving her tuition through the Army’s Health Professions Scholarship Program (HPSP).

After earning her medical degree, she plans to serve active duty.

Collins completed ROTC during her four years of undergraduate education at UK, followed by serving one year as second lieutenant in the Army National Guard. She also studied abroad in Belgium and France as a Bingham Scholar and has served as an AmeriCorps VISTA in Louisville.

“The military has lived up to my initial hopes, but what keeps me in the military is my dedication to soldiers and their families, as well as my dedication to the United States,” she said.

Her military experience so far has shown her that with enough grit, practice, community, and occasional divine intervention, she can accomplish her goals. She currently has a 15-year plan for her career, with a dream of establishing a nonprofit after completing service.

But her main focus has and always will be to help “put some good back into the world.”

“If I can retire knowing that I’ve helped someone, that will be enough for me,” Collins said.