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USAF doctor strives to advance women leaders in military medicine

Image of Photo of Dr. Yun. Click to open a larger version of the image. U.S. Air Force Col. (Dr.) Heather Yun, Deputy Commander for Medical Services, is an infectious disease physician playing a critical role in BAMC’s COVID-19 response. Yun, is a fourth-generation doctor who has tackled many roles over the course of her career – student, doctor, mentor, leader, wife, mother, singer, and endurance triathlete. (Photo by Jason Edwards)

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Air Force Col. (Dr.) Heather Yun is the epitome of being in the right place at the right time. Less than a month after she became the newest leader on the command team, Yun found herself perfectly situated to help shape Brooke Army Medical Center’s COVID-19 pandemic response.

Coincidence or just good fortune, the new deputy commander for medical services at the Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston facility also happens to be an infectious disease physician, a specialty that’s accustomed to scrutinizing the globe for potential viral outbreaks and devising ways to contain them.

“I was fortunate to be in the command suite early on with the expertise and opportunity to ring those early warning bells and help put the pieces in motion,” Yun said.

Yun first became alarmed in January after reports emerged of a growing viral threat overseas. By the time it reached the U.S. via a traveler from Wuhan, China, later that month, Yun was already advocating for a forward-thinking and fast-moving plan to help protect the hospital’s staff and patients from the intensifying viral threat.

Collaborating with leaders across the organization, Yun helped form teams to tackle everything from personal protective equipment supply to medications to testing protocols. In March and with a national emergency declared, BAMC began implementing key aspects of that plan, to include a screening and testing site in the parking lot, curbside pharmacy and a delay in elective procedures.

Upon graduating from Yale University’s Medical School with support of an Air Force Health Professions Scholarship, she became her family’s fourth generation doctor and first Air Force officer. Her father had served in the Army and three of her four grandparents were Army World War II veterans, including a grandmother in the Army Nurse Corps.

Yun recalled how her grandfather, also a physician, had an above-the-knee amputation from a childhood infection, but was intent on serving. “During the war, you could get a waiver to serve as a physician if you had a below-the knee-amputation; he wanted to serve so he said his amputation was below-the-knee. No one checked until much later when it was time to come home again.”

Ingrained with that same determination, Yun moved on to a residency in internal medicine and a fellowship in infectious disease at Wilford Hall Ambulatory Surgical Center on Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland. “I was fascinated by infectious disease; it’s a field that’s constantly challenging and ever-changing,” she said. “It also crosses over every specialty so we have tremendous opportunities to help a wide array of patients.”

“In ID, we obtain the story, the patient history that no one else gets,” Yun said. “We investigate to find the link between what is going on and what caused it.”  

In 2007, Yun moved with the infectious disease mission to BAMC and in her 20-year careers she has steadily climbed the ranks, serving most recently as the chief for the Department of Medicine before taking on a deputy commander role. When Yun isn’t leading the five major departments that fall in her leadership lane, she’s in scrubs conducting COVID-19 patient consults in the intensive care units and mentoring the infectious disease fellows at BAMC. Mentorship is a topic that’s always been near and dear to her heart, she said.

“I had amazing mentors and sponsors, both men and women, who supported me throughout my career,” she said.

“Over the years, I’ve had younger women tell me that it’s been important to have someone senior to them whose life looks like theirs.”

While the military has come a long way regarding females in the higher ranks, Yun sees more progress to come. To foster mentorship, Yun led the “Women in Medicine” program at BAMC for three years and helped pilot a coed military medicine mentorship program for physicians. Most recently, she became the command liaison for the new Committee on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

Navigating and integrating the challenges of work and home life hasn’t always been easy, but it’s been worth it. “I had to learn to have grace with myself, and to lean on my faith, my family and my colleagues,” she said.

“I just hope that when women look around the current landscape, they see strong leaders of every gender, race, ethnicity and background and, most importantly, their own potential.”

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