ub alum michelle lea

PAI Salute to Veterans: Lt. Cmdr. Michelle Lea Joins the Ranks of UB PAI

Pamela Adelman, Clinical Coordinator, University of Bridgeport PA Institute

Defense Meritorious Service Medal. Joint Service Commendation Medal. Three Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medals. Lieutenant for the White House Medical Unit at Camp David, responsible for the medical care for our nation’s leaders. It’s not every day that one encounters an individual with such an impressive background—unless you are a student, staff, or faculty member at PAI. These accolades and accomplishments are but a few attributed to PAI’s Director of Clinical Education, Lieutenant Commander Michelle Lea. In her 20 years of service in the US Navy, she has crisscrossed the country and the globe, landing here in Bridgeport to helm the Clinical Education department. In honor of Veterans Day, The PAI Pulse spoke with Professor Lea to learn more about her.

These opinions are Michelle Lea’s alone and do not reflect those of the Department of Defense.

PAI Pulse: What influenced your decision to become a PA?

Michelle Lea: I worked for the Armed Forces Medical Examiner’s Office during the height of Operation Iraqi Freedom/Operation Enduring Freedom and assisted with the examination of our fallen service members. I knew that I wanted to do more. As a Navy Hospital Corpsman, I learned about PAs and the military’s PA program, and I felt it aligned with my goals the closest.

PP: Astronauts have shared that after viewing the planet from orbit, their perspective on global citizenry changes. Did your time in the service impact you similarly?

ML: While deployed to Afghanistan, my peers came upon a package on the side of the road. In fear that this was an improvised explosive device (IED), they sent robots in to investigate and possibly detonate the device. Upon closer inspection, it was not an IED, but a newborn baby girl with a fresh umbilical stump still in place. I was tasked with assisting in the child’s care and finding placement for her within the local Afghan community. There are many reasons that the baby might have been left – she was born female, perhaps she was illegitimate or even the result of an assault, the family did not have the resources, maternal death, undiagnosed/untreated mental illness, and many others. This experience put an actual face to so many challenges that the Afghan people encounter. These challenges aren’t unique and don’t just happen “over there”; they’re OUR battles to fight. We need to work as one united front to educate, empower, and make change happen.

PP: How has your time in the service informed your medical practice?

ML: After the last 20 years at war, the Department of Defense (DoD) has had to realign their goals and focus their efforts for sustainability. Part of that is distinguishing critical wartime medical specialties in the Defense Authorization Act and allocating staffing, training, and funds to support these fields of medicine. Emergency Medicine is considered a critical wartime specialty, so I have been trained from the very start with a focus in Emergency Medicine and Trauma with the goal of returning the warfighter to the battlefield. Our elective rotations in PA school were dictated for us with a focus in Trauma and I completed an Emergency Medicine Fellowship to increase the medical capabilities on the “front-lines.”

PP: Which of your deployments was the most challenging or most interesting?

ML: This is not deployment related, but an interesting fact about one of my duty stations. I was stationed with the Armed Forces Medical Examiner’s Office from 2005-2008. There, we performed federal death investigations all over the world. The TV show NCIS used our office to develop their character “Ducky.” Ducky’s actual name in the show is Dr. Mallard, which is maybe not so coincidentally similar to the Chief Medical Examiner at the time, Dr. Malik.

PP: What was it like being a woman in a leadership position in what is traditionally a male- dominated field?

ML: For me, it was shifting my mindset from thinking I’m sitting at their table to I’m sitting at our table. Male or female, when you’re new or junior, you have a short window of time to demonstrate your value to the organization. I did feel that I had a slightly shorter window to accomplish this and narrower left and right limits. I worked hard to maintain my moral and ethical compass and not let [those limits] dictate who I was. Interestingly, I found this to be less of an issue when working with more senior personnel and teams on higher stack projects.

PP: How did you maintain your composure and ability to act and react appropriately on the battlefield in order to save lives?

ML: Train, train, and train some more. Training to as many scenarios as you can imagine and being confident and competent in your skills. During times like that you must act and take care of the “mission” in front of you. Once things have settled down, you can allow yourself to process what you’ve seen, grieve if you need to, and talk it out. I think it’s also important to destigmatize asking for help, which may not happen for quite some time after the event. This is not at all different than one might experience in the civilian sector.

PP: What are you passionate about?

ML: Aside from medicine, I’m passionate about mentoring people who have come up without a support system or a system that may not have been prepared for their particular needs. Without strong mentors that guided me through my late teens and early adulthood, I’m not sure where I would be today.

PP: What is your vision for UB PAI?

ML: My vision for UB PAI is to guide motivated students to be confident, competent, and professional PAs through top-notch academic and clinical experiences and strong mentorship.

Thank you for your service, Professor Lea!