AMA board member answers military's call to duty
■ Dr. Ambay, a Florida plastic surgeon, will head to Iraq in March to care for wounded troops.
By Carolyne Krupa — Posted Feb. 28, 2011
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The first time Raj S. Ambay, MD, DDS, was deployed, he served troops preparing to go overseas with his skills as a dentist and oral surgeon.
Nine years later, he is being called on again, this time as a plastic surgeon helping to treat those serving in Iraq.
Dr. Ambay, a major in the U.S. Army Reserve, is scheduled to leave for Iraq on March 4 for his second deployment, his first overseas.
"Service to country is important, especially when we have the opportunity and resources to accomplish so much in this country," he said. "Giving back is so important, and maintaining democracy is so important."
In addition to his military service, Dr. Ambay, 44, is the resident trustee of the American Medical Association Board of Trustees until June. He is a past chair of the AMA Resident and Fellow Section Governing Council. He also is president of a medical device company, chief medical officer of an information technology company and a plastic surgeon at James A. Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa, Fla.
Dr. Ambay grew up in the Chicago suburb of Darien, Ill., where at 26 he was elected as the City Council's youngest alderman. He decided to follow his aunt's career path and become a dentist. He had a strong interest in oral surgery, but after five years of practice he decided to broaden his horizons.
"I realized that I enjoyed surgery so much that I should gain a wider perspective on what was out there," he said.
That's when he and his wife, Aparna, decided to go to medical school. They received their degrees at Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia. Dr. Ambay completed a residency in plastic surgery at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, a research fellowship with the National Institutes of Health and a second fellowship in microsurgery at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Aparna Ambay, MD, MPH, is a dermatologist in Tampa.
Inspiration from family
Dr. Ambay joined the U.S. Army Reserve 14 years ago, driven by a strong sense of duty impressed upon him at a young age by his uncle and the same aunt who inspired him to go to dental school. Both were members of the military and encouraged him to join. It's a decision Dr. Ambay has never regretted.
He was first called to active duty in 2002 for Operation Noble Eagle. Originally slated to go to Afghanistan, he was redirected to Fort Bragg, N.C., at the last minute. It was a patriotic time, following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"Everybody was very enthusiastic, because they knew that we were doing the right thing," Dr. Ambay said. "There was so much support for what was occurring. I don't think that anybody ever thought about being any other place other than right there where all of the action was."
Dr. Ambay was an officer in the Reserve Dental Corps at the time. He completed medical school during his deployment in May 2002 and was given 48 hours to attend graduation ceremonies before returning to Fort Bragg. He has been awarded the Meritorious Service Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal and the Warrior Citizen Award.
He said he was surprised to get the phone call telling him he would be deployed a second time -- this time to Iraq for four months. There's always some anxiousness getting that call, he said, but he has met other physicians who will be going and looks forward to serving alongside them.
Edward P. Cutolo Jr., MD, chief of staff at James A. Haley Veterans Hospital, said Dr. Ambay has skills that make him valuable to the hospital and the military personnel he will treat overseas. Many of those troops will end up at the Tampa hospital, and it will be beneficial to have one of the hospital's physicians seeing them at the start, Dr. Cutolo said. "We've never had someone on the ground."
Charles Butler, MD, who directed the fellowship program Dr. Ambay completed at MD Anderson, said he and other surgeons there will be in close contact with Dr. Ambay during his deployment. The surgeons in the fellowship program routinely offer mentorship and discuss tough clinical cases with former fellows serving in combat zones where they confront devastating injuries unlike those they see in the U.S.
"We maintain an open line of communication," said Dr. Butler, professor and director of graduate medical education programs in MD Anderson's department of plastic surgery. "He is going to make us proud to take the skills that he has learned here in the U.S. ... overseas to help train other physicians and to treat soldiers."