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From battlefields to exam rooms, this UNC doctor tries ‘to do something good’

Dr. Ross Boyce at UNC-Chapel Hill works to help children in Uganda get vaccines to protect against malaria.
Dr. Ross Boyce at UNC-Chapel Hill works to help children in Uganda get vaccines to protect against malaria. Courtesy of Ross Boyce

When Ross Boyce came home in late 2005 after a tour of duty in Iraq, the Army officer planned to attend medical school. But Boyce, who struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder, ended up volunteering for another deployment before becoming a doctor. Now a fellow in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Medicine, Boyce shares how his second experience with war led him to shift his career focus.

Q: What made you decide to apply for another deployment to Iraq?

A: In 2006, the year I started medical school, we had the troop surge in Iraq. A lot of my friends were getting called back. That was a hard time. I was missing being a part of that with my peers. It felt uncomfortable and unsettled to be here in a safe environment studying when everyone else was out doing something.

Q: You saw combat on your first tour. How was your second deployment different?

A: It’s funny how life works. At that point when I got to the unit I was assigned, they said, “Oh you’re in medical school; you must know something.” They made me the civil affairs officer. I interacted with the local populations that involved reconstruction projects, trying to build wells, fix highways and put in new pipes — repairing infrastructure that had been destroyed by the war or just neglected over the decade of Saddam (Hussein) rule. It was meaningful to me.

I left Iraq (the first time) feeling very like I hadn’t done anything good; I’d destroyed things. This time I was working with local people, building things. It felt very personal and was an element of closure for me.

Q: How did your residency at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston lead you to what you’re doing now?

A: The program had a partnership site in Uganda. I didn’t have any plans to do anything in Uganda. I figured I’d go to a place like Syria where there’s conflict. I went to Uganda to a rural site on the western border of the Congo, and there were kids everywhere with malaria just filling up the wards. I had a moment there where I thought, “I could do something about this.”

It was a better calling for me because it was a lot of the same issues ... logistics (requiring) a different problem- solving skill set that I had some experience with because of the Army. It’s about thinking of different ways to be creative about making do with less.

Q: You recently received a $100,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to continue your work in Uganda. What’s the focus?

A: We just got the Gates grant, but the concept behind it is ... to make sure kids get all their vaccines. It’s the cheapest, most cost-effective intervention out there. You vaccinate a child, they’re protected for life. They’ll never get the disease, and it costs like a dollar. You can’t do much better than that. The question is, how do you get the vaccine to the people who can’t get to the clinic?

Q: You’re involved in tick research here in the U.S. What gains have you made?

A: I ended up taking care of this very sick young woman in the hospital at UNC and she had ehrlichiosis. She had been tested for Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and it was weakly positive. It wasn’t perfect and didn’t quite fit, but it was enough to get her started on the treatment, doxycycline. But I wasn’t satisfied with that, and I ended up testing for (the bacterial disease) ehrlichiosis, and it was very positive.

That stimulated my thinking a little bit, and I got into the data. I had this idea if I wasn’t aware of that, then most family practice and front line emergency room/urgent care doctors probably didn’t know. What we found is they’re not testing for ehrlichiosis even though we showed it’s as common, maybe more common, than Rocky Mountain spotted fever ... and certainly more common than Lyme disease.

Q: How do you feel about where your journey has taken you?

A: I led 40 soldiers in combat, and about a quarter of them were wounded but everybody came home alive. I can’t think of anything I’m more bonded to than that. On the other hand, I’ve experienced some of the most horrible things I wouldn’t want anyone to see. I take the worst parts of the things I’ve experienced and use them for motivation to do something good.

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Ross Boyce — Tar Heel of the Week

Born: Sept. 9, 1978, in Atwater, Calif.

Residence: Hillsborough

Occupation: Physician at UNC

Education: Bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Davidson College; master’s degree from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine; medical degree from UNC-Chapel Hill School of Medicine

Family: Married with three children, ages 3, 2 and 6 months

Awards: Three Bronze Star medals from the Army

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