By Steve Lewis
LLANO, TX – Spending much of her career as an oncology nurse, Stacey Young-McCaughan, RN, PhD, a retired Army colonel and professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio School of Medicine, was a little unsure about moving to the psychiatry field six years ago to manage research.
It apparently worked out just fine. Young-McCaughan recently received the Women Veteran Leader Champions of Change award for her work as director of research for the STRONG STAR Consortium in Llano, TX. She and the other nine award winners were jointly honored by the White House and the VA.
STRONG STAR is dedicated to the prevention and treatment of combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and comorbid conditions.
“We had been doing some work with the Bob Woodruff Foundation and were helping to consult,” says Young-McCaughan. “Unbeknownst to me, the foundation put my name in for consideration. When the White House called to vet me, I thought it was a trick at first.”
The only “trick” involved, in reality, was her mastery of the STRONG STAR mission. “I am not a psychiatric nurse,” she says. “I was focused on cancer and cancer care, and physical rehab.”
But the director of the program saw something in her and brought her on to coordinate and run research studies and be an investigator on her own projects. She retired from the military on Aug. 31, 2008, and joined STRONG STAR the next day.
was an Army nurse for 29 years and led the Department of Clinical Investigation at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio — the first and only nurse to hold that position. She also served as deputy director of Fort Detrick’s congressionally-directed research programs, which now funds STRONG STAR efforts.
She then moved on to become the BAMC Chief of Clinical Investigation, beginning in 1998, to do her own funded research with tri-service nursing programs.
“STRONG STAR knew I had been involved with research and I said I did not have subject matter expertise in psychiatry, but they needed me to help do their studies in the DoD,” Young-McCaughan says. “Many of us have had experiences where civilian investigators wanted to come into military facilities, do research, take their data and leave. They are not as collaborative as many people in the military would like them to be, and they don’t understand the unique aspects of military service and healthcare.”
Young-McCaughan says she learned “tons” about behavioral health and PTSD over the last six years. “But it’s a team effort,” she insists. “We all have our strengths; one of mine is being able to integrate our studies into the military.”
So, for example, she has theorized that exercise can be used to augment PTSD treatment: “We put together a protocol and just had an article in Runner’s World about a study of ‘Exposure Therapy’ done at Fort Hood.”
Part of behavioral therapy, Young-McCaughan notes, involves the patient listening to a tape they have made about their trauma. The Fort Hood study involved some patients listening to the tapes while running. “This helps metabolize cortisol and stress hormones, both of which PTSD patients have too much of,” she explains.
Range of Experiences
Young-McCaughan says she came into the Army right out of nursing school for “primarily selfish” reasons. “I wanted a broad range of experiences, to be the best nurse I could possibly be, and the opportunity for travel was very appealing,” she says. “I came in with a three-year commitment, and 29 years later here I am.”
Why did she stay? “I liked being part of a team; I felt I could contribute to the team effort and positively impact the mission,” she responds.
As for her dual mission as an officer and a healthcare professional, “I’ve always considered my base to be my nursing practice and being able to provide the best care possible to beneficiaries,” says Young-McCaughan. “Then, in the course of becoming a military officer, you learn the importance of leadership and its critical role. You learn the type of people you like to work for and build those teams so you can do the mission. It only makes healthcare better when you can build a team, lead a team and do what you need to do.”
Staying in research, she continues, “Has been my way to keep connected to clinical care.” When you’re in the military and promoted, she explains, you’re expected to be a leader and to lead larger and larger organizations. “I really missed clinical care,” she confesses. “This way, I still have a leadership role but I’m still connected.”
As she continues to interact with both veterans and active duty servicemembers, says Young-McCaughan, “I find it incredible when I elicit and hear their stories — what they’ve gone through, the things they’ve done; it just makes you want to do your job better.”