JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas —
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 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.
“We made quick decisions,” she said. “I had to forgive myself in advance for mistakes. I always say, ‘You can’t let perfect be the enemy of good.’ It’s better to put a plan in motion and adjust fire later than wait for a perfect plan that may never come.”
It’s a lesson Yun learned over the course of her more than 20-year military medical career.
The Delta, Colorado native had always been a hard-charger who dreamed of following in the footsteps of the men in her family – all doctors. She’d look under her father’s microscope as a child and later would tag along when her dad, an internist, went on rounds.
At the time, she didn’t give her gender a second thought in relation to a career. “My dad was really supportive of his kids pursuing their passion. I didn’t have any reason to believe I couldn’t achieve my goals.”
She set her sights on Yale Medical School, and with the help of an Air Force Health Professions Scholarship Program, was given a free ride at an Ivy League school in exchange for military service.
When she graduated, she became her family’s fourth-generation doctor and first Air Force officer, diverging from her family’s Army legacy. 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 at 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.”
Infectious disease physicians specialize in illnesses caused by bacteria, viruses, fungi or parasites, whether airborne, waterborne or transmitted by a person or animal. A key area of focus is preventing hospital-acquired infections and organisms resistant to antibiotics. Within the military, infectious disease doctors commonly work with population health, trainee outbreak investigations, medical research, policymaking and more, she explained.
“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 has climbed the ranks since, 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, a longstanding program that trains up to 12 physicians per year. 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.
The only exception, she recalled, was as a major when confronted by diverging paths. When she looked around, the military medical landscape was nearly devoid of women senior to her, particularly those who were married with children, and she briefly considered a civilian career.
“I at first wondered if my situation wasn’t practical or desirable,” she said. “But then I realized I needed to be here to show other women that they can do it too. 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 co-ed military medicine mentorship program for physicians. Most recently, she became the command liaison for the new Committee on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
“Even if you only get discriminated against 1-2 percent at each transition point over the course of your career, it adds up and it’s easy to get the message that you don’t belong. We can’t just assume by being patient, these issues will take care of themselves. We have to address those pivotal moments at every transition point and level the playing field for everyone.”
Yun has tackled many roles over the course of her career – student, doctor, mentor, leader, wife, mother, singer (she’s a member of the San Antonio Choral Society), and endurance triathlete, but is nowhere near the finish line. With COVID-19 at hand and other challenges ahead, Yun is eager to continue contributing on every front.
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."