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Talking to Dr. Mary Horan about the many hats she wears at Northwest Hospital, you seriously wonder if she has time to sleep or eat. The list makes your head spin: pulmonology/critical care physician, chief health informatics officer, senior director of health information management, clinic chief of Northwest Respiratory Associates and a UW clinical associate professor.

On any given day, she sees patients, collaborates with hospitalists and intensivists, oversees technology implementations, sits on a dozen committees and tries to help staff and clinicians connect through the electronic health record. And that’s just for starters.

“It’s never boring,” she laughs. “There’s a tremendous amount of learning and the opportunity to have a larger impact on patient care than just caring for individual patients.”

It’s challenging work, but a job she says the military helped prepare her for.

The oldest of five children, Horan was born in Dallas, TX. The daughter of a salesman father, she moved frequently as a child, ending up in Vermont when she was in high school. Always good at science, Horan decided to major in chemistry at St. Michael’s College in Colchester, VT. It was there she started considering medicine.

“I thought medicine was a way to make science more meaningful, and it was intellectually challenging. It was a ‘twofer’ for me.”

After graduating college, Horan applied to medical school – and was rejected.

“It was probably the best thing that ever happened to me,” she says. “I was book-smart but too light on life experience. They essentially told me to come back when I grew up.” So she headed to the University of Colorado/Boulder for a master’s degree in organic chemistry.

“Graduate school gave me the chance to teach, and it showed me I wasn’t always the smartest person in the room. Most importantly, I realized I was much better suited to applying science than doing scientific research.”

Horan applied to medical school again. This time, it was the military that opened the door to her medical future.

During her first year at the University of Vermont medical school, Horan applied for the military’s Health Professions Scholarship Program, which helps fund medical school in return for service in the military reserves. Horan says she chose the US Army because its training hospitals had a better reputation.

Her first active duty commitments were summer rotations at Madigan Army Medical Center in Tacoma, and Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, DC. She returned to Madigan after medical school for an internship, residency and fellowship in internal medicine and pulmonary and critical care medicine.

“I got an excellent clinical education. My mentors and the people I trained with were wonderful. Madigan was pretty antiquated then, and it attracted the type of people who had the willingness and commitment to overcome those challenges and take excellent care of patients.”

In 1989, fresh from her fellowship, Horan was sent to the army base in Landstuhl, Germany, where she became one of only three pulmonologists consulting for the entire European theater.

Dr. Mary Horan as a young active duty reservist in Germany.

Dr. Mary Horan in her US Army uniform

“Landstuhl got the sickest of the sick,” she says. “The European theater included the eastern bloc countries, ships in the Mediterranean and even Peace Corps volunteers from Africa, so we saw some interesting and some tough things.”

Horan remembers motor vehicle traumas, sarcoidosis, the tropical diseases of the African volunteers and the viral pneumonia of a group of sailors – some of whom didn’t make it.

“We had to grow up quickly,” she says.” There are expectations of you irrespective of how long you’ve been there. Tasks presented themselves and you just did them.”

Three years later, Horan rejoined the staff at Madigan as a pulmonary/critical care provider. She also trained medical residents and pulmonary/critical care fellows, and earned a UW faculty appointment in the pulmonary/critical care division.

Dr. Horan confers with a colleague at Madigan.

Dr. Mary Horan with a colleague at Madigan

Then, after 11 years of Army service and having achieved the rank of Major, Horan left to begin civilian life. She joined Valley Medical Center for three years before moving to Northwest Hospital in 1998.

“My military experience pales in comparison to the experiences of people who have served in the Medical Corps since I did – people who go back repeatedly to combat zones and see a constant physical and emotional drain on our young people, along with society’s isolation from what they are going through. It’s a tragedy,” she says.

Horan believes it’s what makes treating veterans different than treating other patients, and where the Veteran’s Administration (VA) comes in.

“I think the VA is uniquely positioned to understand what the general population doesn’t about the needs of servicemen and women. There is something about a veteran’s experience that only the VA can understand — their sense of order, how important their fellow platoon members are, why they did what they did, and the nature of their injuries, both physical and emotional. It’s not something most of us in civilian practice can understand quite as well.”

Far removed from her military service, Horan misses the people she met and experiences she had during that time.

“In the military there is the possibility of seeing people from all over the world that you never would have otherwise. The world comes to you – different races with different cultural values, different health issues, and even different understandings of health. It’s not for everyone, but it was a unique place to be, and not something that would have happened to me in a different place and time.”

Nowadays, when she’s not working, you can find Horan and her long-time partner Karen walking their golden retriever Pinot, enjoying theater and sports events, skiing, golfing, fly-fishing and traveling. Next up is a cruise to Norway and Europe, and a return to favorite British Isles spots including London and Scotland. Horan would also love to relearn the French she used to be good at, and secretly thinks of taking singing lessons.

Dr. Horan and her dog Pinot try out a little singing to see if lessons are right for them.

Mary Horan and her dog "singing"

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