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Dean's Roundtable - Tom Coppin, MD'67

Dr. Thomas D. Coppin is a distinguished member of the School of Medicine’s class of 1967. He’s a career army pathologist, who extended his career after 30 years in the army for 13 more years working at FHP and then Lakeview hospitals.

Why don’t you share the story of how you became a pathologist?

I was in the middle of my rotating internship [at Madigan Army Medical Center in Fort Lewis, Washington], and I applied for an ear, nose and throat residency, which was very competitive. In the army, those were awarded to doctors who were in Vietnam and would return. I think that was fair for paying that price. And so, when I opened my orders, it said Vietnam. I made an immediate trip to the Army education office, went down the list of residencies, saw three, and one of those was pathology. I essentially took it on the spot. I walked over to the chief of pathology and said, “Would you take another resident next year?” And he said yes. He got on the phone, changed my orders in Washington, and I looked forward to becoming a pathologist. And I went home and told my wife, and she said, “What is that? Is that a real doctor?”

So, you did pathology, then where did you go?

I went to Germany. I'd served an LDS mission in the Netherlands, and I wanted to go back to Europe—it had been several years. So, I looked for a central place where the army had openings, and I was on my way to Germany.

While I was there, I heard there was an exchange in the army, with the Royal Army Medical College in London. That's a place that manages all the careers of the people in the Royal Army. And the only exchange in the army was pathology. Somebody came through from the Surgeon General's office, and he wasn't well received by most of the doctors who'd been drafted—so, we had plenty of time to talk. He asked me what I wanted to do, and took out a legal pad and started writing. I said, “I heard there was an exchange position in London.” So, he wrote my name down, and we adjusted the time I was in Germany to meet that. I was on my way to London.

I was right in the middle of the city, about two blocks down from Westminster Abbey. We were right on the Thames in a historical building. In that building were the two of us, me and a pathologist from the Royal Army. We reviewed all the pathology that was done anywhere in their system.

How did you end up back in Washington?

It was time. The exchange position was two years, so I had to go somewhere after that. We'd been in Europe six years, and it was time for the kids to learn that they were really Americans—they'd forgotten what it was like. And so, I went down to the embassy where they had a liaison office and called a consultant in pathology in Washington, DC, said, "What have you got for me?" And he said,

“How about the assistant chief of where you were? At Madigan Army Medical Center?” We loved the Pacific Northwest, we didn't mind the rain. I knew my wife would love it, so I said I'd take it.

I went home and told my wife, and she was thrilled that we were going back to Fort Lewis, Washington. On the way home, I took a trip to Washington, DC. While I was there I called up the consultant and said, “I'm in town, anything you want to discuss?” And he said, "Oh by the way, I've changed your assignment.” My heart kinda fell. I thought, “ I hope I'm not going to El Paso, Texas.” But he said, “The chief of pathology was in trouble, the residency program was in trouble, and you won't be the assistant chief, you'll be the chief.” So, I went back to where I trained, six years later as the chief of the department and residency program director.

I wasn't sure I was prepared [to fix the program]. But I sat down with the green book - that's a book of all the requirements for accreditation of a residency. And for a few weeks, I sat at an IBM electric typewriter—no computers in those days—and I rewrote the entire residency program by myself. I instituted strict rotations with evaluations and applied for reaccreditation. Full accreditation came back, and we maintained that the rest of my time there.

How did you get involved with medical work in Ghana?

DeVon Hale was giving a lecture at lunch, and he talked about his experiences [in Ghana]. He threw up a picture on the board  and he said, “Here's a thousand-bed hospital without a pathologist.” And my classmate, Liz, yelled across the room, “Tom, you're just the one!” So, after that lecture, people kinda zeroed in on me, “How about going to Ghana?”

I asked the LDS church if I could do a humanitarian service there for six months.  I thought I’d better go look on my own. I told DeVon, “I'll buy a ticket and go look.” And he said he was going in three weeks and asked if I wanted to go with him.

And so that day I ran to turn in my passport to apply for a visa—they said it took two weeks. I went and got shots and photographs and everything. And sure enough, the visa came in on time, and I went to Ghana with DeVon. There were 11 medical students who also came. After about two days DeVon assembled them, and we went on a bus to the teaching hospital. For a week, I trailed him as he settled the medical students in their various assignments.

And then we went to meet pathology, and it was a mess. They begged me, “Can you stay?” I said no, but that I could put a program together and return in about six months.

So, I contacted an organization called Pathologists Overseas that had done work in Kenya, Madagascar, and Nepal, and I asked how this worked. And they told me that they did it with a series of rotating volunteers. When I came back [home], I talked to them again, and they said, “I'll tell you what, we've never been in West Africa, but if you'll be the program director, we'll help you recruit.” Well the president [of Pathologists Overseas] called everybody who'd ever done a rotation like this before, and I called every pathologist I knew. After a few months, I had enough pathologists to start the program. I decided to go first, make sure that everything was in order, and have the others  fill in as we needed. In two weeks, we were in business, and we cleaned off a backlog of an entire year of pathology.

Do you have any memorable moments from your time as a medical student?

In pathology, we were assigned mentors, and these were groups of five or six medical students. So, the faculty each had a piece. I was in a group assigned to somebody who didn't show up very often. I think he came up from Provo when he felt like it. So, when we had the first examination, the results were released by your mentors; we didn't have one, and nobody else would tell us. We begged to be assigned somebody else, and they assigned us Dr. Coulson, who was from the UK and a wonderful guy.

So, we got in the lab. It was a little lecture thing, kinda like out of the movies: a table in the center and the bleachers around the side. We sat, and he told us our results. He went down the row of those in my group, and he got to one fellow (it was my best friend), and he said, “And you, mister, were the second lowest in the class.” And I looked at my classmate, and he had this look of horror on his face, which struck me so funny that I burst out into laughter. And [Dr. Coulson] said, “And Mr. Coppin, you shouldn't be laughing, because you were the lowest.”

In pathology. And I thought to myself, well I'll pass, but it doesn't matter, I'm never going to be a pathologist.

Is there any advice you want to share?

I love people. And as a residency program director, it was a real privilege to mentor careers. But in addition to the residents, you have to manage your staff. And I'm the kind of guy that if I put somebody on a roster, I put my name first. So that once the chief has done it, it's hard for anybody else to back out. And that stood me in good stead.

And everyone's important. In a hospital, it doesn't matter if it's the person emptying the waste baskets. Everybody makes your life possible, and as a doctor you're privileged to be head of the team.

And it doesn't matter where you go, you've got the tools. You can do it.