A Mission to Serve
Lieutenant Colonel Gerard Antoine, MD (M’98), retired last month from the U.S. Army after 24 years of active duty service which bookended his time at Georgetown University School of Medicine. For Antoine, the inexorable bond between his military and medical careers propels him into his next endeavor, and leads him back to his childhood home.
The doctor’s end goal is to build the Rehabilitation Hospital of the Caribbean (RHC) in Trinidad. RHC will be the first comprehensive inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation hospital in the English-speaking Caribbean, with an aim to reduce cardiovascular and stroke morbidity and mortality in Caribbean nations. The company is registered, and the hospital’s name is in place; Antoine is now focused on making it a reality.
“It’s like the Cleveland Clinic, or the Mayo Clinic,” he says with a confident smile. “They started off as ideas in somebody’s head, too.”
Using the model of MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington, D.C., Antoine plans to open RHC’s outpatient offices this year, followed by the construction of an inpatient facility. The teaching arm of the institution will be the Caribbean Medical Providers Practicing Abroad (CMPPA), a non-profit founded by Antoine in 2006. The growing volunteer organization hosts annual conferences and training for medical and rehabilitation professionals throughout the Caribbean. CMPPA collaborators from around the world attend the program, including members of the vast Caribbean medical diaspora.
‘A Shot at a Dream’
Born in Trinidad, Antoine holds the Caribbean close to his heart. He hopes to improve health care in his birthplace, and he understands from personal experience the impact that better medical resources and training can offer. When he was 10 years old, his mother, Lucille S. Antoine, died during routine childbirth in a Trinidad hospital.
“Even today, there is a significant shortage of physicians and nurses in Trinidad and Tobago,” he notes. “In addition, there continue to be high incidences of stroke and other noncommunicable diseases. This is my way to give something back to the community that gave me the best and most memorable years of my life.”
His family emigrated to the U.S. when Antoine was 14. He enlisted in the Army at 17, beginning a remarkable career that would combine medicine and the military, service and leadership. Unlike many future physicians, Antoine did not dream of being a doctor. “I wanted to work in electronics and be an engineer,” he explains. “The recruiter told me engineering required a six-year commitment, and I just wanted to do three years in the military to secure funding for my education.” The recruiter suggested Antoine sign up as a medic, based on his time constraints and admissions scores. Twenty-five years later he was still in uniform—and still in medicine.
Antoine stayed as an enlisted soldier in the Army for 10 years, climbing to the rank of Sergeant First Class. He served in many roles. “I was an infantry combat medic in the 101st Air-Assault Airborne Division, an ambulance driver, a hospital attendant, and a platoon sergeant in an evacuation hospital—I covered the gamut, and I enjoyed it,” he says. “The military taught me perseverance and leadership. I learned about teamwork, and what it’s like to be involved in something far bigger than myself.”
The exposure to so many aspects of health care during his enlisted service changed Antoine’s career path. He pursued health care, becoming a respiratory therapist working with spinal cord injury patients in VA hospitals. One of his patients became his mentor, pushing him further in his medical ambitions.
“This man, Mr. Bryant, not only served as a mentor, but he became my friend. Even more than that, though, he encouraged me,” Antoine continues. “That’s when I was first exposed to physical medicine, rehabilitation, and spinal cord injuries. I’d been an enlisted soldier for 10 years, and like so many in the military, I’d attended five different undergraduate schools to earn my bachelor’s degree. Medical school seemed like an unlikely dream. But Mr. Bryant believed in me. He nurtured and encouraged my growing desire to become a physician.”
And so, in what he calls “a shot at a dream,” Antoine enrolled in medical school at Georgetown, a community he credits with truly embracing him, in addition to providing him with an outstanding education and wonderful resources. The friendships Antoine developed on the Hilltop have endured, and many of his Georgetown friends now contribute their time and talents to CMPPA.
One friend, Nigel Scott (C’95), an undergraduate ten years his junior, had attended the same high school in Trinidad. They met on the basketball court during a pick-up game on campus. All these years later, Scott, now an attorney in Philadelphia, provides pro bono legal services to CMPPA.
“Georgetown brought us together, and we bonded over our shared experiences— in Trinidad and on campus,” Antoine says. He formed another lifelong friendship with David L. Taylor, Associate Dean for Student Learning and Director of the Georgetown Experimental Medical Studies (GEMS) Program, whom he considers a mentor. Their admiration is mutual.
“In my 27 years at Georgetown, I’ve interviewed thousands of students aspiring to medicine, and many express their heartfelt interest in establishing healthcare clinics or facilities to give back to communities in need,” Taylor explains. “Dr. Antoine is one of the few doing just that.”
Antoine’s Georgetown lessons went beyond the classroom. “I received the right exposure and learned to become an active, lifelong learner. I also learned to serve. I think the whole education process at Georgetown prepares students for service to humanity, and challenges them to keep learning so they can better serve their patients and communities.”
Lessons in Service and Teamwork
The commitment to service he learned at Georgetown built upon Antoine’s military training and gave him inspiration and direction for the next step in his career. After completing his internship in family medicine at Howard University Hospital and his residency training at MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital, Antoine chose to stay in the military.
“The model of service and leadership at Georgetown is important in the military— especially when things change so fast. It tied in really well with what I was doing. It was an easy decision for me to stay on,” he said. “I’ve been a soldier since I was 17. I enjoy taking care of the men and women who serve—whether on a deployment, or in my work as a rehabilitation physician at the VA hospital. I enjoy wearing the uniform and taking care of the families.”
The military values resonated with him.
“It’s amazing to watch, really. Even when they get hurt, the first thing young soldiers ask in the hospital is ‘How are my buddies?’ and the next thing they say is ‘I want to get back out there.’ They want to stay with their units, their fellow soldiers. I believe that’s why people join the service: to serve something bigger and greater than themselves.”
A veteran of both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Antoine recalls his service with deployed troops on combat outpost (COP) McClain in Afghanistan as a rewarding time in his military medical career. “I was the only physician, serving with four combat medics and two special forces medics. While I worked in the safety of an aid station, the young medics made daily trips into harm’s way—‘outside the wire’—which were often eventful.”
The remote mountain aid station served as a trauma bay, a family practice clinic, a recreation center, and on occasion a chapel. “I was the oldest guy there—a 50-year-old lieutenant colonel. The aid station was the only location on the COP where young soldiers could come and relax when they had a free moment. I made sure they always had lots of hot coffee and video games.”
“Our trauma patients always presented in groups of three and four,” he says. “Our goal was to stop the bleeding, stabilize, and evacuate them. The one variable in the equation we could not control was evacuation: we had to manage severely injured patients sometimes for a few minutes, and sometimes for up to an hour. It all depended on our helicopter medevac support on that day.”
“Practicing in a combat zone without the support of another physician or nurse alongside you teaches teamwork at the deepest level,” he explains. “You learn to trust the young medics who work in the aid station with you. And in that extreme setting, I took every opportunity to train them for the worst case scenario, because I knew it was going to happen—we just didn’t know when. Training went beyond the medical staff. We trained the infantrymen to care for their buddies; we trained every soldier to assist in mass casualty situations.”
Giving Back to Trinidad
As he retires from the military, Antoine now turns his passion for service to the land of his birth. “All my best memories of life were in Trinidad. I feel obliged to give something back. There are challenges with health care in the Caribbean, and I have something to offer.”
Through CMPPA, he asks Caribbean colleagues who currently practice in the U.S., Canada, and Europe, as well as other medical and non-medical volunteers, to give their time, money, and expertise. The growing network held its first conference in Trinidad in 2014, with about 150 attendees, including 50 international volunteers. At the 2015 conference in Tobago, over 250 people, including more than 70 international participants, attended. In 2015, CMPPA partnered with the Trinidad and Tobago Cancer Society to perform pap smears, breast exams, and cancer screening in Tobago. The next conference is scheduled for June 2017 in Barbados.
Taylor sees Antoine’s unique, motivating form of servant-leadership as the driving force behind the success and growth of CMPPA. “The reason everyone is excited about CMPPA and the Rehabilitation Hospital of the Caribbean is Dr. Antoine, and the reason he can motivate and inspire people to help him is because he serves first. This gift in him was groomed by the military and nurtured at Georgetown. You hear the same theme all the way through his career,” says Taylor.
As he prepares to move from Hawaii to Trinidad, Antoine is excited for this next chapter in his life.
“For the last 15 years, I’ve spent my time taking care of one patient at a time, every 30-45 minutes, then going home. But I’ve realized that I can help many more patients through CMPPA. We can help thousands at a time by securing resources for treatment, education, and outreach. I want to contribute to the little part of the world that I can change. I am just doing what I know: rehabilitation medicine, physician leadership, and community service.”
At the conclusion of an accomplished military career, Gerard Antoine (M’98) reflects on his time at a combat outpost and turns to the challenges of health care in the Caribbean.
By Melissa Maday