There are many ways to describe Melissa Thomas: Fourth-year medical student. Army veteran. Accomplished scholar. Hospital administrator. Published author. Over the course of her life, Thomas has had several experiences that many of her fellow physicians have not encountered. She hopes these experiences will inform how she tackles her future career in emergency medicine.
Thomas was driven and competitive when she was growing up in Massachusetts. Whether in sports or academics, she felt that she always had to be at the top of her class. When it came time to choose a college, she was drawn to West Point, where a game of Ultimate Frisbee cemented her decision. During her campus visit, she remembers watching a group of cadets playing on the lawn. But when the cannon went off, signaling the day’s flag raising, every player stopped mid-throw to salute the flag.
“It just kind of struck me, how they were putting something above the game that they were playing,” Thomas says. “It opened my eyes to putting something beyond myself.”
Thomas studied life sciences at West Point where she applied to medical school, and deferred enrollment so that she could deploy. She got married right after her graduation in 2004, and she and her husband Chris were stationed in Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas. During that time, she earned an MPH from the American Public University System (an online education provider for military professionals) and an MHA/MBA from Baylor University.
Both spouses served multiple deployments—Chris four times, Thomas twice. During her first deployment to Iraq, Thomas worked as executive officer of a company, running a clinic and a detainee facility (prison) on the base. On her second deployment, also in Iraq, she traveled from base to base managing medical personnel. Thomas was then stationed as a hospital operations department chief in Colorado, where she found herself on track toward a career in hospital administration. It was there that the military physicians she worked with urged her to apply to medical school if that option was something she still desired.
“I had started to put the idea out of my mind, since I was going down a path that was pretty successful,” Thomas says. “But they planted that seed. I was able to do things like scrub into a surgery and see an autopsy; I loved the hands-on stuff and thought, ‘What am I missing?’”
Around the same time, Chris decided to switch into the reserves and go back to school to become a teacher and outdoor guide. He urged Thomas to pursue her passions as well, and she began studying for the Medical College Admission Test, or MCAT.
Thomas had nearly completed her medical school interviews when Chris died; he was killed during a snowshoeing trip in Colorado on New Year’s Eve 2014. Her only remaining medical school interview was at Yale. The entire day passed in a blur until one professor started going over her personal statement line by line. “It helped ground me, let me step back and remember what I want,” she says. “That my life was going on.”
Thomas eventually chose Yale because of the collaborative nature of its medical programs. Unlike the driven student she was in high school, Thomas didn’t feel the need to earn perfect grades or fight to be at the top of her class in medical school. “[Yale] wound up being the best place for me because it wasn’t about competition, it wasn’t cutthroat,” Thomas says. “The fact that they were focused on people being whole people, rather than just physicians, was key for me at that time in my life.”
At Yale, Thomas has worked to normalize difficult topics like death and traumatic experiences. Earlier this year, she had two articles published in the “New York Times.” The first, titled “The Day They Came to Tell Me My Husband Died,” details Thomas’ experience with the sheriffs who came to tell her Chris had been killed. The second, titled “I’m a Veteran Without PTSD. I Used to Think Something Was Wrong with Me,” examines Thomas’s involvement with a study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Center for PTSD at the Department of Veterans Affairs, where she served as a control subject.
Thomas hopes to use the experience of Chris’ death to shape how she informs patients of their loved ones’ deaths later in her career. “As an emergency physician, I’m going to have to do that myself,” she says. “I hope I can take what I learned from that night and be there for my patients’ families in the right way.”
Outside medical school, Thomas sits on the board of a nonprofit that combines expeditions with scientific research to provide purpose to veterans. She was selected as a 2016 Tillman Scholar by a foundation that seeks out military veterans with leadership potential and helps them achieve their educational goals. And she is part of a group called The Dinner Party, which consists of people in their twenties and thirties who have lost loved ones. Members remind each other not to tiptoe around the fact that traumatic experiences happen, or that people close to them have died. “It happens, it’s a part of life,” Thomas says. “Just be normal—laugh, remember them; talk about death.”