David M. Countryman loves to teach. In Charleston, South Carolina, his appointments as assistant chief of surgery at the Ralph H. Johnson Veterans Administration Medical Center and assistant professor of surgery at the Medical University of South Carolina afford him the deep satisfaction of imparting his expertise to surgery interns, surgery residents, and medical students.
Countryman’s gateway to medical school was a B.S. in Applied Biology (with highest honors) from Georgia Tech in 1975. With an Air Force scholarship, he went to Medical College of Georgia for his medical degree. Before enrolling in Georgia Tech, he attended North Springs High School, in Atlanta, Georgia.
What attracted you to study in Georgia Tech? What is the most important thing you learned at Georgia Tech?
It’s reputation for academic excellence. I thought if I could go there and do well, I’d have a good chance to get into medical school. I was fortunate enough to get into medical school on my first attempt.
The most important thing I learned was how to study. I learned to go to classes and to study the material on a daily basis rather than just cruising until just before the test, which is what I had done in high school.
What is a vivid memory of your time at Georgia Tech?
The fraternity house—I was an officer in Sigma Alpha Epsilon—was big part of my life. I was also in the Ramblin’ Reck Club. My participation in these groups helped me learn how to interact socially with people from different countries and backgrounds.
How did you get to your current position?
After finishing medical school in 1979, I did my internship, residency in surgery, and fellowship in thoracic surgery at Keesler Air Force Base Medical Center, in Biloxi, Mississippi. I was fully trained by 1985.
To fulfill my obligation to the Air Force for the scholarship, I worked at Scott Air Force Base Medical Center, as chief of general and thoracic surgery. I also had faculty appointments in St. Louis University School of Medicine and in the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences School of Medicine.
When my obligation was over in 1989, I went into private practice in general, thoracic, and vascular surgery in Rock Hill, South Carolina. In 2004, I joined the Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care System, in Biloxi, Mississippi, as assistant chief of surgery and director of the surgery residency program. In 2010, I came to Charleston and assumed a similar position. This allows me to be close to three of my four children, who live in Charleston.
What roles did your Georgia Tech education and experience play in your journey to your current position?
When a prospective employer sees that you have an undergraduate degree from Georgia Tech, it means a lot. It places you ahead of prospective employees from other schools.
Organic chemistry was big a wakeup call. On the first day of class, the professor told us that 2/3 of us were going to flunk out of the course before the year was over. That told me that this course was serious business, and I better work really hard to get past this hurdle.
At the time, almost all the schools in Tech had a course like that, the “weed out” course. In the long-term, it was better, because if you couldn’t do organic chemistry, you’re not going to be a doctor. It benefits the student to find out early if they are in the wrong field.
I struggled initially in organic chemistry, but did steadily better over the course of the year. However, after Tech, the chemistry in medical school was not nearly as difficult for me as it was for a lot of people.
The entire Tech experience prepared me to take all the different steps in my career. The skills that I learned at Georgia Tech in order to get along with different types of people help a lot in marriage, too. I’ve been married to the same woman for 38 years.
Dr. John Strange, in the School of Biology, was inspirational and personable. He made science fun. He taught physiology, which is a pretty dry course, but he made it come alive. He had a great sense of humor, which was rare among Tech professors at the time.
When I was in my junior and senior years, he hired me to help in research about catfish farming. He taught us how to do research and how to write scholarly papers. I was fortunate to get a paper published as an undergraduate.
What do you like most about your current job?
I teach general surgery to surgical residents, surgical interns, and medical students. It’s the teaching that gets me out of bed in the morning.
What has been the greatest challenge in your professional life so far?
The business aspects of private practice, because I had no training in that at all. Setting up an office, how to hire people—I had to learn these on the fly.
Now, we take the time to teach the business aspects of medicine. I do a significant amount of teaching in this area, because I’m one of the few faculty members who has had private business experience.
What has been the most gratifying experience of your professional career so far?
I’ve been voted Surgical Educator of the Year by students for two years in a row. This recognition makes want to keep doing what I’m doing. I’m 63, and I’d like to keep operating and teaching as long as I can; I love it!
If you could have taken an alternative career path, what would you be doing instead?
I’d be a high school athletic coach. I played junior varsity baseball for two seasons at Tech. In Rock Hill, I was a high school baseball and football coach. The joy comes when you see that light come on and a kid starts to bunt the ball. It’s the same joy from teaching surgery students. But baseball is more fun.
What advice would you give to incoming first-year students at Georgia Tech?
Focus on time management and finding balance among the different areas of their lives. Most of them have been stars in high school, where they haven’t had to work hard. They need to learn how to study but also to make time for relationships and extracurricular activities so that they graduate as well-rounded persons.
What’s something about yourself that’s not obvious to your colleagues?
Officiating is how I bought my wife her engagement ring, which she still has. My brother and I provided umpiring for most of the youth baseball in North Atlanta for two years. We had a lot of fun, and we made a lot of money.
If you could have dinner with any person from history, whom would you invite?
Jesus Christ. To be in his presence, to be able to soak up some of his wisdom, would be the most wonderful experience that I could possibly imagine.
Prayer has been a big part of my medical practice. I pray with my patients. It gives them a lot of peace. I always ask first if they want to do that. In 40 years, just one patient refused.