WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE — It started in the stairwell of a New York City subway station.
“So, I was coming up out of the subway and I was climbing up the stairs. Some of the stations in the city have huge flights of stairs,” said Maj. (Dr.) Luisa Watts.
Then a civilian, Watts was working for a financial firm, providing economic insights to account managers.
“So, I’m climbing up the stairs and as I’m coming up, I’m looking at a lady who looked like she wasn’t feeling well. It looked like there was something wrong,” said Watts. “Then, all of a sudden, I notice her eyes went up and she was going to fall, down a lot of steps. So, I ran up and I caught her. I didn’t know what else to do.”
It was a sense of helplessness that led to a life-changing decision.
“I was screaming for help and I was really angry that I couldn’t help her,” said Watts. “And [I thought] ‘That’s it! I’m becoming a doctor! That’s it!’ So, that’s how I became a doctor.”
It was life-changing not only for Watts but now for the thousands of patients she impacts every year. Watts is a staff pathologist at the Wright-Patterson Medical Center of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Between her and three other pathologists at WPAFB, they conduct some 7,000 cases a year for Wright-Patterson patients as well as those of 12 other military medical facilities around the country.
Pathology is the study of disease. Pathologists diagnose disease through analyzing bodily fluids and tissues in the laboratory. Doctors order tests based on symptoms and physical examinations, such as ultrasounds, mammograms and colonoscopies, with pathologists often performing those tests in the background, far from the examination room. Anyone who’s ever had a biopsy has been a patient of a pathologist, even if they have never met.
“They’re an integral part of the diagnostic work up of patients with malignancy,” said Lt. Col. (Dr.) Roger Wood, WPMC Cancer Care Center director. “They have to review all the biopsy specimens that are completed in order to provide us with accurate information regarding the different types of cancer that we treat as well as sophisticated molecular studies that have to be performed in order to ensure that we have the right treatment plan for the patient. If there’s an issue or an error with that, then we may be at risk for providing an incorrect treatment to a patient. So, they play a key role.”
In fact, without pathology, treatment for many diseases couldn’t even begin.
“It’s extremely important. Having an adequate diagnosis of the disease process is how we know how to treat it,” said Maj. (Dr.) Scott Hewitt, WPMC General Surgery Flight commander. “In surgery we say you have to name it, stage it and treat it. So, naming it is the very important first step.”
It’s an importance not lost on Watts.
“It’s humbling,” says Watts. “I always think about the patient coming in to a doctor’s office and having a problem and wanting to know why they have that problem. Then, [they have a] procedure, which is painful, in the hopes of finding out what’s wrong. Every time I look at the slide, I think about that patient and I make sure that what I’m saying is the right thing for them. So, if they need treatment they can get the right treatment, or if it’s just something that will pass, they can be comforted in that.”
It was Watts’ desire to be able to say the “right thing” that pushed her into pathology. During the last two years of medical school, Watts said that students studied a wide range of disciplines in rotations, such as pediatrics, surgery, gynecology, and others.
“I liked everything, but I didn’t love everything,” said Watts.
It turns out that there was a common reason why.
“It seemed like we were always waiting on pathology and there was all this grey area, ‘Well, we think it might be this. It might be that,” said Watts. “I was uncomfortable with the uncertainty and so when I became exposed to pathology, I liked the way that I could see what was happening. I could explain what had happened in this particular area or to this person or why they were feeling [a certain way] and I liked that. It seemed more definitive. It’s still not totally black and white but, there’s more of a [level of certainty].”
And certainly, it wasn’t just seeing a woman faint in the subway that prompted Watts to change careers.
“I was working in finance in New York City and I didn’t feel like I was doing anything for the greater good,” Watts said. “It was interesting. It just didn’t seem like a good fit so, that was kind of stirring in my mind. At the same time, my mom was ill, so it was like all of these things coming together.”
After the subway incident, Watts went to a medical school fair where three military recruiters approached her and told her about the Health Professions Scholarship Program. HPSP pays all tuition and required fees, including books, supplies and some equipment, for a wide variety of healthcare professions from one- and two-year scholarships for pharmacists, all the way up to four-year scholarships for doctors and dentists.
Now, nearly fours years into being an Air Force pathologist, Watts is also the medical director for chemistry, serology, medical urinalysis and point of care tests at the hospital at WPAFB as well as the medical director for the Scott AFB Clinic laboratory. She’s also the medical director of phase II training for enlisted medical laboratory technicians. Once the technicians complete phase II training, they are allowed to sit for their national certification tests, which, if passed, certifies them as fully qualified technicians.
It may have been an unusual path to medicine for Watts, but her impact as a pathologist has affected tens of thousands of patients, the vast majority of whom don’t even know her name, much less have met her.
“It’s ok,” said Watts. “I imagine that their diagnosis is difficult to deal with and I’m just happy that they’ll be able to get what they need.”
Eventually, she’ll have to choose from one of three professional paths; stay a clinical pathologist, pursue a command track where she could one day lead an entire hospital or an academic one, where she could possibly pursue scientific breakthroughs.
Watts says she finds all of the paths attractive, but isn’t quite sure which one she’ll choose. Whatever the choice, rest assured the reasoning will be without reproach.
“I’m a person who likes to ask why,’” said Watts. “I don’t want to just give you this medication and then your symptoms are resolved. No. Why did you have that? So, with pathology, I [have] that kind of answer.”
Story courtesy of Wright Patterson Air Force Base.