WASHINGTON, DC—The theme of this year’s Harlem Fine Arts Show—the largest touring African diasporic art show in the United States—is “Health and the Healing Power of Art.” Its goal is to showcase people in the field doing exemplary work and to raise awareness of medicine as a viable career choice for young African-Americans.
Harry Marshall, MD, chief of surgery and director of surgical critical care at the Washington, DC, VAMC, was one of those honored at the show’s opening night ceremony in June. A U.S. Army veteran with a 30-year career in military medicine, Marshall never needed anyone to point out medicine as a viable choice. With a chemist father and a nurse mother, the sciences were always part of his life. And he knew he wanted to be a surgeon from a very young age.
“When I was growing up, we had a kitten. One day it got caught on a fishhook. This kitten was screaming and crying, and my two sisters were running up and crying. So I grab this kitten that’s scratching the bejesus out of me, pull the hook out of its mouth and save the day. I think that sparked something in me,” Marshall explained. “I enjoyed helping people. I saw I could cure something with my hands.”
Marshall went on to receive a Bachelor of Science from Morehouse College and his medical degree from Howard University College of Medicine in 1984. But, while he embraced a path toward medicine very young, a life in the military was never part of his plan. “My father was a reserve Army officer, and he told me to think about the military. But this was back in the ’70s when our country’s love affair with the military wasn’t like it is now,” Marshall recounted. “He had two of us in college, and you can imagine the financial burden. After my second year, he came to me and said, ‘What do you think about ROTC?’ I said, ‘No.’ He said, in the way that only fathers can, ‘I don’t think you understand.’”
With his family’s financial health at stake, Marshall traveled to Fort Knox, Kentucky, for ROTC basic training and, to his surprise, fell immediately in love with the Army. After his internship, he spent four years on active duty, serving as a flight surgeon and general surgeon in Korea, then returned home to complete his surgical training at Georgetown University.
What followed was a 25-year career as a citizen soldier that included two tours as a trauma surgeon in Iraq and one as a flight surgeon in Kuwait. What struck Marshall most about his time in deployment was the diversity and unity of the soldiers he was supporting.
“These are men and women of all ethnic and racial backgrounds who have come together for a common cause. And that’s one thing, especially during this time, that has always given me faith in the American people,” Marshall said. “And it’s something that impacts how I treat these veterans here at the VA. We have a common understanding.”
Marshall had long had his eye on a job in the VA healthcare system—a goal that was only reinforced after time spent in the private sector. “I had an incident where a business manager came to me with a list of 10 patients, each of whom had a dollar figure attached to them. He asked me, “‘What do you want to do with these patients?’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He looked at me, perplexed. ‘I mean, do you want to send them to collections?’ I didn’t get into the business of caring for people to send them to collections.”
As the DC VAMC’s chief of general surgery, Marshall gets to spend his days worrying about his patient’s health, rather than how they’re going to pay their bill—a life much more in line with what he imagined when he saved his family’s kitten all those years ago. Although, with a lifetime of experience behind him, he has a much broader view of a VA surgeon’s responsibilities.
“As a surgeon and as a physician, I view my job as much more than reaching into someone’s body and, hopefully, doing the right thing and having a good outcome,” Marshall said. “I also see myself as one of the patient’s pillars of hope. For veterans who have served this country, either foreign or domestic or just in training, it has taken a toll. And that toll can be mental, physical, or emotional. For them to have someone who can relate to them is important. And I’m honored to be able to stand in that gate and be there for the guys who go outside the wire.”