While many perceive military life as defined by discipline, rules and restrictions, even a quick scan of the curriculum vitae of Alfred Shwayhat, D.O.’96, M.H.A.’95, M.P.H., FACP, FACE, shows its opportunities. A captain in the U.S. Navy, he is designated a naval flight surgeon, surface warfare medical department officer and Fleet Marine Force medical officer. Chief of endocrinology at the Naval Medical Center San Diego (NMCSD), he previously served as the Health Services Department head aboard USS Carl Vinson (CVN70), from which he led medical relief operations for the carrier task force in the immediate aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
Residency-trained and board-certified in internal medicine and aerospace medicine and fellowship-trained and certified in endocrinology, Shwayhat also has received five teaching awards at NMCSD, given numerous professional presentations and published research articles. He has earned honors including the Navy/Marine Corps Operational Flight Surgeon of the Year, NMCSD Internal Medicine Attending Physician of the Year and Commander of Naval Air Forces/Navy and Marine Association Best Senior Officer of the Year, as well as being awarded a pile of military medals.
“When I look at myself in the mirror, I can still vaguely see the skinny, eager-to-please, somewhat self-conscious small-town kid who was raised by his parents to work extremely hard and make the most of life,” he says. He grew up working after school in his father’s Santa Rosa, CA, grocery store, stocking shelves, refilling the refrigerator and working the cash register.
“My parents, who were immigrants to the U.S., wanted their kids to have a better life than they had,” he says.
As a teenager, he had no interest whatsoever in the military. He also thought “doctors seemed so overstressed and boring,” but that changed when, as a graduate student, he met a couple of Navy physicians in his job as a research assistant at the Naval Health Research Center in San Diego.
“Captain Pat Olson and Captain Jerry Linenger were athletic, had been everywhere, practiced in medical centers as well as in austere conditions and, as flight surgeons, had flown in all kinds of cool Navy and Marine aircraft,” he recalls. “But they remained humble and enjoyable people to be around. I was in graduate school with Captain Olson, who was a very interesting world-traveled preventive medicine specialist, and I worked for Captain Linenger as a research assistant. Captain Linenger was later accepted to NASA’s astronaut program and flew in two missions aboard the space shuttles Atlantis and Discovery.
“I was a wide-eyed kid in awe when these guys would talk of their experiences in the Navy,” he adds. “I figured in order to divert toward their pathways, I had to finish graduate school and apply to medical school and the Navy HPSP [Health Professions Scholarship Program]. So I did all those things and found myself landing at Des Moines University. Some call it destiny. I call it divine intervention at a critical time in my life.”
That set Shwayhat on a path of pushing past his comfort zones, from pursuing graduate and medical degrees to skydiving as a DMU student – even though at the time he was afraid of heights – to graduate medical education training and academic clinical practice, deployments with a Marine squadron and later aboard an aircraft carrier, to service on the USNS Comfort hospital ship on humanitarian missions in Central and South America, the Middle East and Southeast Asia.
“The Navy’s interests and mine have been aligned thus far. I’m sort of known as the guy who just can’t say ‘no’ if he is needed,” he says. “At heart, I’m still like a kid in a candy store. Why take only one lollipop when the owner keeps offering you another one?”
That love of variety and willingness to embrace it have made military life a good fit for Shwayhat. In recent years he’s also focused on raising his two children, Ellen and Joseph, whom he calls the “greatest joys of my life.”
“I’m forever thankful to my country, my family, DMU and the Navy for the privileges they gave me. My mantra has been to work hard, treat each day as if it were my last, and if I am not sure what to do next, to take the option that offers the most options after it,” he says. “As I opened each door, new ones opened. I wonder what’s next?” ✪