Man on a mission

November 1st, 2018 Posted in From Our Alumni
Medical student approaches goals with moxie and modesty

By Laurie B. Davis

Tony Mitchell always wanted to become a pilot, a mission he has accomplished. He now wants to be a doctor and is working toward that goal as a student in the College of Medicine and Life Sciences. His end goal is to merge the two areas of expertise with his aeronautical and systems engineering degrees to become a pilot physician. Pilot physicians solve issues that occur at the interface of man and machine.

First-year, University of Toledo medical student Tony Mitchell always wanted to be a pilot. “I saw “Top Gun” at too early of an age; I think I saw it when I was about 2 ½,” he quips. The 1986 film starring Tom Cruise as Pete “Maverick” Mitchell was released the same year he was born.

What really helped Mitchell realize his objective were hard work, determination and “stick-to-itiveness.” These same qualities are now helping him achieve his current goal of becoming a doctor. But that is just one more step toward his ultimate ambition of becoming a pilot physician, a hybrid role in the Air Force that has existed since World War II. “Really, it’s the greatest synergy of everything I’ve done up to this point,” says Mitchell. 

At times, Mitchell’s endgame has appeared impossible and his progress stalled because of his commitment to the Air Force, which extends to 2032. But in August 2018, he enrolled in the College of Medicine and Life Sciences and became a member of UT’s Class of 2022. 

He enlisted in the Air Force as a bomber mechanic at the age of 18 in 2004. “I got picked up to go to the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs,” says Mitchell. There, he studied for one year in the academy’s preparatory school, followed by four years in the academy majoring in aeronautical engineering. “I went from fixing airplanes to flying airplanes, but first I went to graduate school and did systems engineering.”

A research project on process improvement for an oncology clinic at Wright Patterson Air Force Base was a turning point in Mitchell’s life. “I had never even thought about a career in medicine until that point; I always just wanted to be a pilot. But it was that experience, I mean, it sounds like a platitude and an overused trope, but it felt like a switch flipped, and it felt like a calling: medicine is something I have to do.”

The desire to study medicine after graduate school was strong enough to prompt Mitchell to relinquish a coveted pilot training spot he had earned. “It was my dream pilot training; it was the ENJJPT (Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training Program) in Wichita Falls, Texas. It’s where the most elite candidates go to fly,” says Mitchell. His advisor convinced him otherwise. “He was like, ‘no way, dude. I’m not going to let you do that. You’ve wanted to be a pilot your whole life, and maybe this will be a passing thing. You can always go and be a doctor, but you can never go back and be an Air Force pilot.’”

Reluctantly, says Mitchell, “I agreed, but honestly, the urge to be a doctor never left me.”

Just as Mitchell had performed well in both the Air Force prep school and academy, graduating in the academy’s top 5 percent, he excelled in pilot training. Afterward, he became a pilot instructor. His engineering degrees had not provided the science courses needed to begin a medical degree program, so he began earning credits for his prerequisites. “I worked 14 hours a day, and then went home and did organic chemistry at night,” says Mitchell.

Toward the end of his instructor assignment, Mitchell had completed his prerequisite courses and taken his MCAT exam. “I was a moderately competitive candidate,” Mitchell says, who lined up medical school interviews, with UT being his first. “I interviewed the day before my wedding, which my wife wasn’t thrilled about,” says Mitchell. He and his wife, Haja, have a one-year-old daughter, Adelina.

Mitchell says his Toledo interview went very well and he “loved it.” He anticipated an acceptance letter, which came — but not without another disruption to throw off his plans.  

Mitchell explains: “The Air Force underwent a bit of a crisis, and it’s still undergoing a crisis.” The federal budget sequestration of 2013 extended budget cuts until 2021, and military spending was slashed. “Congressional mandates required pilot cuts,” says Mitchell. “Without the budget, the Air Force wasn’t producing pilots, either. Manning numbers got really low,” he adds, but mission requirements did not decrease.

Fighting two wars, one in Afghanistan and another in Iraq, as well as having a military presence in many other parts of the world, pilots were necessary to the missions underway. “At that time, the alarm bells started to sound about a pilot manning crisis,” says Mitchell. “Even though I had an acceptance to go to medical school, the Air Force said, ‘no way, we’re not going to let you go to medical school.’” In fact, says Mitchell, the Air Force said, ‘not now, and probably not ever.’

“It was devastating. So, with a very heavy heart, I wrote the admissions office and told them I was really happy about the offer, but that I couldn’t accept it now and possibly not at all in the future because I have a long commitment to the Air Force.”

The College of Medicine and Life Sciences admissions office came back with another offer. “If within the next four years I could get released to go to medical school, I’d have a seat waiting for me. That was a much more generous deferment than I’ve ever heard of previously. Toledo was extremely understanding,” says Mitchell.

Over the next three years, Mitchell finished his instructor assignment and learned to fly B-52 bombers. He also managed to convince the Air Force that obtaining an M.D. had a two-fold advantage. “It took talking to the right people in the right positions to finally say yes, that me going to medical school created value not only for me, but also for the Air Force. His argument was that a pilot shortage for the Air Force was a limited view. “The pilot physician manning numbers also were low, which highlighted a need for the Air Force.

“So, I was able to join the Class of 2022; up until a month prior I was never sure if it was ever going to happen because there’s always stuff going on in the world, and if mission requirements dictate that I have to go somewhere else, then I have to go somewhere else,” says Mitchell.

“Pilot physicians work in the man-machine interface,” says Mitchell. They help solve problems that can arise because of a faulty design or system malfunction in a plane that puts pilots’ health or lives at risk. “For an example that is pretty salient,” says Mitchell, “in the late 2000s,F-22s were crashing at an alarming rate.”

Mitchell describes F-22s as the fifth-generation, latest and greatest stealth fighter planes. He says an onboard oxygen-generation system that could create concentrated oxygen out of the atmosphere, was to blame. Pilots were having human factors issues at an alarming rate that were affecting their ability to pilot the aircraft. “Monetarily, in hardware, they [the Air Force] lost hundreds of millions of dollars, and it was priceless losing pilots’ lives,” says Mitchell. It was a pilot physician, who flew F-22s, and other team members who solved the issue. They created a new regulator system with early detection of symptoms in pilots as well as software on the aircraft that would react.

Mitchell’s flight training and engineering degrees, and his experience as an aircraft mechanic have brought him closer and closer to reaching his goal.

He says the first couple of months of medical school are going well, although he had no delusions about his curriculum being easy, he says. “I’ll be honest. It’s not as hard, and I don’t have to work as much as when I was a pilot,” referring to those 14-hour work days followed by hours of studying for the MCAT. “I’m doing better than I thought I would.”

Since those early days of working toward his degrees at the U.S. Air Force Academy to studying in UT’s College of Medicine and Life Sciences, Mitchell remains humble about his successes.

“Usually the people who go to the service academies are really smart, they max out the ACT and SAT, and are the valedictorians. And I wasn’t that in high school. I wanted to see how far hard work could take me.”

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