Students who major in polymer and color chemistry at the Wilson College of Textiles often follow similar career patterns within the world of manufacturing. Dr. Ben Schmidt ’06 broke that mold, however, when he applied to medical school and went on to earn his M.D. degree.
A specialist in emergency and internal medicine, he works today on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. His hospital is small by some standards. The LifeBrite Community Hospital of Stokes, located in Danbury, North Carolina, has just 25 nursing home beds, 20 inpatient beds and five emergency department beds. Nonetheless, the life and death decisions that confront Schmidt in that setting are no less consequential than those that challenge his counterparts in large urban environments.
So how did he end up migrating from a Wilson College chemistry lab to a small town emergency department in Stokes County? That question is easier to answer if one knows the range of academic interests he was encouraged to cultivate during his undergraduate years.
“I’d always had a strong interest in general science,” he says, “but didn’t have much exposure to the life sciences until college. I particularly enjoyed my courses that touched on biomedical technology. I liked studying things like hernia meshes and suture materials. And during junior year I did some volunteer work in gastrointestinal medicine at Duke. By senior year I knew I wanted to pursue a career in medicine.”
He subsequently enrolled at the Wake Forest School of Medicine (which has an acceptance rate of less than five per cent.) He completed his residency and his fellowship work at Wake Forest also.
Looking back, he credits his Wilson College faculty mentors in general, and Cone Mills Distinguished Professor of Textile Chemistry Professor David Hinks – now dean – in particular, for encouraging his career ambitions every step of the way. “None of them tried to channel me into business or industry, just because I was attending school on a Centennial Scholarship.”
Indeed, Schmidt credits the Centennial Scholarship for making a huge difference in his life. And his life could easily have gone in a far different direction, since his other college acceptance was to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.
“Being part of a small group of Centennial Scholars was hugely important in easing my transition to college,” he says. The Wilson College was small to begin with, so the Centennial Scholars were like a family within a family. I needed that at the time.”
Not surprisingly, Schmidt says the COVID-19 pandemic is the most challenging situation he has faced since he started practicing medicine .
“Because of our rural location,” he says, “we normally see a lot of farm and machinery accidents. But we know how serious viral outbreaks can be, and we prepared ourselves, as circumstances required, to deal with serious threats like H₁N₁ and Ebola. But with COVID-19, it was unusually difficult to pick a strategy and stick with it, because there were so many changes. CDC guidelines could change week to week, if not day to day.”
To cope with such challenges, he’s done two things: 1) learn to be flexible; and 2) help prepare his colleagues to deal with surges. “Our surges are nothing like those in places like New York City,” he says, “but they are something that hospitals like ours have rarely if ever seen.”
Asked how he has adjusted to these types of stresses Schmidt says he was blessed with perhaps a greater in-bred capacity to deal with them. “I’m lucky in that traumatic events normally don’t rattle me,” he says.
He emphasizes that the value of good training is not to be underestimated. “Good training,” he says, “is like muscle memory. It just kicks in automatically when you need it.”
He adds, however, that the working environment in an emergency department actually helps medical personnel to remain steady under pressure. “The priorities of what needs to happen are usually self-evident,” he says. “The more severe the illness or injury, the more obvious it is what needs to be done. Nevertheless, I do need to remind myself and my team not to get too comfortable. That’s when mistakes tend to occur.”
Schmidt says the introduction of the new COVID-19 vaccines has been a huge relief to him personally, after so many months of dealing with acute illness and an inability to save the lives of all affected patients.
He notes that media commentators have been correct to highlight the exceptionally short timeframes needed to develop and manufacture the vaccines. And he believes another positive outcome of the pandemic is the degree to which competing pharmaceutical and research organizations set competitive concerns aside to serve the common good.
“During times of acute stress, people tend to follow their better angels,” he says. “Crises like COVID-19 can and hopefully do bring out the very best qualities in people.”
Written by Raymond Jones