UNIVERSITY OF SAN DIEGO / Fall 2009
mission
incredible
power to
the people
moving at
warp speed
wide world
of deportes
under
pressure
a passion
for justice
under pressure
Dedication to critical care keeps him motivated
by Trisha J. Ratledge

PHOTO BY JACOB DEAN

[peripatetic] It was a quiet lunchtime shift at Naval Medical Center San Diego. Then a patient went into cardiac arrest, his heart at a standstill. John Whitcomb was one of two nurses on duty. He had just minutes to literally bring this patient back to life.

Fortunately for the critical patient, Whitcomb ’05 (Ph.D.) thrives under pressure. He defibrillated him twice and got his heart rhythm back before the swift response team could even answer the code he had called. The next morning, Whitcomb watched his patient enjoy breakfast with his daughter and wondered how he’d wind up responding during his recovery.

“What do people do after they have a life-changing event like that?” Whitcomb asks. “Some are afraid to leave their home for fear it’s going to happen again. Others will go out and live life to the fullest.” It was an “aha” moment that led him to explore the question of how patients react after such an event, and ultimately, to pursue answers through his Ph.D. research at the Hahn School of Nursing and Health Science.

At the Naval Medical Center, cardiac arrest survivors weren’t referred to cardiac rehabilitation, although myocardial infarction — or heart attack — patients were. In his study, Whitcomb’s participants answered questions about their physical and mental health, symptom distress, cognitive performance, daily functioning and life changes, and they wore pedometers to measure their movements.

“Cardiac arrest survivors suffered from symptom distress, were on a lot of meds, wanted a support group but didn’t know where to go, and were fearful of doing anything too strenuous,” he says. “It really opened my eyes that this is a unique group that we need to pay more attention to.”

For Whitcomb, this foray into nursing research was another advancement in a career that began in 1983 as an 18-year-old hospital corpsman at a Navy intensive care unit. Despite initial jitters — being in the ICU “certainly was an eye-opener,” he says — the work resonated with him, and he was inspired by his nursing colleagues.

“I saw what the nurses were doing, and the more I got involved, the more they taught me,” recalls Whitcomb, who had planned to become a paramedic if he hadn’t joined the Navy. “They were great mentors who helped shape my path. I wanted to be able to do more with the patients, and they encouraged me to go back to school.”

He went on to earn a bachelor’s, a master’s and a Ph.D. in nursing. Along the way, he’s worked at all of the Navy’s largest command hospitals, including Portsmouth, Va., Bethesda, Md., and San Diego. He also served in Iraq as a medical battalion director with the first wave of military that entered Baghdad through Operation Iraqi Freedom in April 2003.

“I have a passion for critical care,” says Whitcomb, who has been awarded an impressive collection of Navy honors over the years, including three Commendation Medals, two Achievement Medals, a Humanitarian Service Medal and a National Defense Service Medal.

Today, he’s a commander and one of just nine Ph.D.-prepared nurses in the Navy. And of those, he’s one of only five nurse scientists involved in active research, a select position that has enabled Whitcomb to reach beyond nursing and collaborate with co-workers in other medical disciplines. He also oversees all 600 critical care nurses in the Navy, serves as the national faculty — a dean of sorts — for the Navy’s Advanced Cardiac Life Support education program, and reviews an average of 100 scientific manuscripts, abstracts and presentations from colleagues annually.

Recognized as an expert in the civilian world, Whitcomb is on the board of directors for the American Association of Critical Care Nurses and for AACN Certification Corp., which develops and administers certification exams for specialties within critical care. As a consultant for the Society of Critical Care Medicine, he is qualified to teach the group’s two-day Fundamental Critical Care Support course for physicians, nurses and others involved in critical care.

While he credits his nursing mentors for his early achievements, Whitcomb attributes his accomplishments to his experiences at USD.

“I wouldn’t be where I am today, in the positions I’ve been afforded, if it hadn’t been for USD and the way they prepare you for after school,” he says. “Dr. Hunter, Dr. Roth, Dr. Georges, Dr. Mueller, Dr. Orsi, all of these people had influence on what I was going to do with my degree once I graduated. There was always real application, prepping you to think critically, to analyze, to be a leader. They would say, ‘You don’t have to change the world with your work now, but you are going to build upon it once you leave here.’”

Whitcomb has done just that, first by presenting his research around the world — from Belfast, Northern Ireland, to Honolulu, Hawaii, to Okinawa, Japan — and second by expanding on his cardiac arrest research at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth. He reviewed three years of resuscitation outcomes for cardiac arrest patients at the hospital and then recommended improvements, such as adding automatic external defibrillators to the surgery floors and implementing a national-standard documentation format. A team is evaluating these changes now to determine their effect on current outcomes.

However, Whitcomb will have to review those results from 450 miles away. Just now, he’s in the midst of a major transition, retiring from the Navy after 26 years and joining Clemson University in South Carolina as a professor in their school of nursing. John, his wife, Kathy, and their daughter, Krista, are settling into their new home this fall. Kathy retired from the Navy two years ago as a commander and women’s health nurse practitioner. Whitcomb also has two sons: John, 24, and Ben, 21, who are both serving in Iraq with the Army.

At Clemson, he will be working with undergraduate, graduate and Ph.D. students, and he is looking forward to the prospects his new career holds. He’s hoping to find ways to contribute to the medical and educational community in the area, much as he has at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth as a member of the institutional review board and chairman of the ethics committee. He’s already meeting with officials to discuss such possibilities as sitting on a clinical studies institutional review board for the state of South Carolina, staying engaged in ethics with the Navy and giving some lectures in ethics at the university.

His new position at Clemson brings Whitcomb full circle, back to the state where he worked in his first ICU as a neophyte hospital corpsman in Charleston, S.C. The connections don’t end there.

As he closes down his office in Virginia, he jokes that this major change is really quite familiar: “I told my wife it’s not really retiring after 26 years; it’s just like another move. I get 30 days’ vacation and we’re starting up again.”

mission
incredible
power to
the people
moving at
warp speed
wide world
of deportes
under
pressure
a passion
for justice