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Dress Blues & Green Scrubs: Navy Surgeons at Duke

Tuesday, April 14, 2020
By RC Dubois, Section of Surgical Disciplines
Photos of Dr. Robert Strange and Dr. Chad Johnson

Photo: (Left) Dr. Robert Strange in a U.S Army Air Ambulance, 2010. (Right) Dr. J Chad Johnson while deployed, 2019.

A serendipitous meeting led to a collaboration between Duke and the Navy, bringing two new surgeons into rotation: Robert G Strange Jr, MD, and J Chad Johnson, MD. Having done his cardiothoracic surgery residency at Duke in 2010-2013, Dr. Johnson was thrilled to run into Dr. Thomas D’Amico and Dr. Peter Smith at a conference, where they discussed the difficulties in maintaining surgical skillsets while deployed, particularly in a specialized medical field. From this, and a lot of hard work behind the scenes from both the Navy and Duke University Medical Center, the agreement was reached for Dr. Strange and Dr. Johnson to alternate three-month rotations here at Duke.

Currently Staff Cardiothoracic Surgeons and Assistant Professors of Surgery at the Naval Medical Center in Portsmouth, Virginia, both Dr. Strange and Dr. Johnson knew that they wanted to practice medicine at an early age. Dr. Johnson knew from the first time he dissected a fetal pig in high school, while Dr. Strange’s interest came after he had a benign osteochondroma excised as child. He was fascinated when the doctors explained the surgical instruments and what goes on in the operating room, and knew he wanted to be able to help others with medicine too.

This isn’t the first instance in which the Navy maintains readiness among surgeons in subspecialties through civilian partnerships, in particular it has been a benefit for Drs. Strange and Johnson to work at not only a training institution, but also “a well-known center of excellence for cardiothoracic surgery.” Dr. Johnson says that working with Duke has been “both a challenge and a reward, a bit like drinking from a fire hydrant.” The process of onboarding was busy, but offered the opportunity to work higher acuity cases, multiple procedures, and be in the operating room every day. Dr. Strange said that it was bit overwhelming at first, to have such big names in the specialty suddenly introducing themselves in the halls and offering to help. “It wasn’t like I showed up and had to fend for myself,” Dr. Strange said, “everyone was very supportive and respectful.”

While Dr. Johnson is excited about this trade-off on a small scale, he is also excited about the prospect of the bigger picture, the prospect of this program serving as a model for other branches of the military and medical specialties. In the interest of providing the best possible medical care for active-duty soldiers, the military encourages different solutions for each specialty. The high volume of cases he has the opportunity to work on allows him to be a better prepared surgeon and at a higher state of readiness for the Navy, said Dr. Strange, “the experience is just incredible.”

Dr. Strange on the deck of the USNS Comfort
Dr. Strange aboard the USNS Comfort, 2020.