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Dr. Chris Colbert of University of Illinois at Chicago: Lessons I Learned From My Military Experience about How To Survive And Thrive During A Time Of Crisis

I first heard John Wooden’s quote, “Things turn out best for those who make the best out of the way things turn out,” in college and it sticks with me to this day. Understanding that life will provide lemons and we all have a decision to make about what we are going to do with the fruit we have been given. During a crisis, it is most important to both define roles and identify goals as well as use those resources required to end the crisis. The best characteristics to survive a crisis include determination, courage, open-mindedness, and dedication.

In this interview series, we are exploring the subject of dealing with crisis and how to adapt and overcome. The context of this series is the physical and financial fallout that resulted from the COVID 19 pandemic. Crisis management is one characteristic that many successful leaders share in common, and in many cases, it is the most important trait necessary to survive and thrive in today’s complex market.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Chris Colbert, DO, FACOEP, FACEP

Christopher Markus Colbert is the Assistant Program Director of the emergency medicine residency program at the University of Illinois at Chicago with specific interest in both academic and social emergency medicine. Additionally, he is the chair of continuing medical education for the American College of Osteopathic Emergency Physicians (ACOEP), the co-chair of Illinois College of Emergency Physicians (ICEP) spring symposiums and a lieutenant colonel in the United States Army reserves. Chris has provided and moderated lectures nationally and internationally receiving awards for both speaker engagement and contribution to medical education. Dr. Colbert received his undergraduate degree from Hampton University, a medical degree from Des Moines University College of Osteopathic Medicine and is a graduate of the Midwestern University Emergency Medicine Residency Program.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?

I grew up in a military family, in fact, I am a third generation military. Both of my grandfathers’s served, respectively in the Army and Marines, as did my father who served 20 years in the Air Force. I was born at Walter Reed Hospital when it was still located in Washington, D.C. Growing up my Dad was transferred to numerous bases ranging from the Philippines, Germany, Texas, Virginia, and Scott Air Force Base in Illinois. I have very fond memories of my childhood meeting amazing people, forming great friendships, and seeing the world. Being brought up in a military home played a huge factor in my interest in becoming an emergency room physician.

And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?

Currently, I am a lieutenant colonel in the Army reserves as well as the assistant program director of the emergency medicine residency program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Additionally, I serve as the chair of continuing medical education for the American College of Osteopathic Emergency Physicians (ACOEP) and the co-chair of Illinois College of Emergency Physicians (ICEP) spring symposiums. I also speak on the topic of emergency medicine at events throughout the country. Being an emergency room physician is a very humbling and dynamic profession, it is multifaceted with many working parts. I could not just sit down and tell you one story that would encompass the breadth of an emergency room physician. Every day I go to work with a white coat, but I am wearing many different hats. To say I am humbled by the impact and path my life has led that allows me to work in this capacity and have such a positive effect on the world is an understatement.

Can you tell us a bit about your military background?

I had made the decision at a very young age to enlist in the military, but I was not sure what branch. When I completed college, it was the United States Army that offered loan repayment for medical school. I graduated from medical school in July 2007 and was deployed to Iraq by December of that same year. Throughout my military career, I have been deployed to Iraq, Japan, Kosovo, Germany, Guantánamo Bay, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and Tripler Army Medical Center. I have been fortunate enough to receive both the Army Achievement and Army Commendation Medals. I have traveled the world, worked alongside amazing men and women, and interacted with people from all walks of life. All of this was made possible through the United States military.

Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?

There are many different stories and various defining moments within my journey as a military physician. It is difficult to identify specifically one story that can be classified as the most interesting, however, there are some stories that stick out more than others. One that comes to mind that is most humbling was how in combat, members of the community and countries in which we were occupying would seek medical attention from occupying nations. I was humbled and amazed how people of other countries in which we were occupying in times of combat put their trust in the opposing nation for medical management. Often, I would be called by the security at the front gate for a mother and a child seeking medical management from the United States. It is the policy of the United States for anyone seeking medical assistance, specifically life, limb, eyesight, or pediatrics to provide medical management to all who seek it. I had assumed that when deployed in a combat zone I would only provide medical management to US soldiers and contracted staff. I found myself treating local citizens, pediatric patients from different countries and even soldiers of other nations that were working alongside the United States.

We are interested in fleshing out what a hero is. Did you experience or hear about a story of heroism, during your military experience? Can you share that story with us? Feel free to be as elaborate as you’d like.

While deployed in Iraq we would experience what would be defined as a mass casualty. During mass casualties, a large number of injuries are sustained by a group of US soldiers. While the emergency room was staffed well, it was not however enough to accommodate mass casualties. When a mass casualty would occur, we were made aware by a signal provided to all physicians and hospital staff on the forward operating system or the FOB. In seconds, the room would be filled with off-duty surgeons, additional ER physicians, and internal medicine physicians who immediately gravitated to patients in need. It was in those moments where you felt you were in the midst of heroes working to save the lives of individuals in need. In these situations, everyone immediately descends on the emergency room flying in the blind, ready and willing to serve. That is one of the many examples of heroism in a combat zone.

Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?

I define a hero as anyone who engages in selfless acts to affect change in the absence of personal gain.

Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business or leadership? Can you explain?

My experiences within the military which included various training, multiple deployments, interacting with a diverse population of individuals including those in different stages of their military background and points of reference enhanced my bedside manner as well as channeled and developed my character allowing me to be a leader and nurturing that potential. I found the value of working in a group and the courage to contribute toward the collective goal of an organization. From my foundation in the United States Army, I was able to transfer my experiences and focus my passion and talent into providing local and national lectures, expanding the conversation on cutting edge emergency medicine, functioning as a chair of multiple committees and being a positive reflection to those interested in emergency medicine as well as the military. All of this can be attributed to the experiences that I have had as a military physician.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

There is an extremely long list of individuals that I attribute my success to, from teachers to coaches, friends, and family. However, I must say that the most influential and positive influences on my life are my parents. At a very young age, my parents instilled the values of human decency and how the benefit of having an open mind and positive interactions can be. My father always discussed the amazing resources of the military and its ability to nurture one’s potential along with harnessing that potential and allowing one to achieve absolute success in every field of the human endeavor. My father’s support and example were instrumental in my success as an adult.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out how to survive and thrive in crisis. How would you define a crisis?

Crisis is a relative term as some crises are blatantly evident while some crises seem smaller, but it is my opinion that what we are left with post-crisis are the learned lessons in our behavior exhibited during the crisis.

Before a crisis strikes, what should business owners and leaders think about and how should they plan?

The best preparation for a crisis is a collective understanding of roles and resources during the crisis. If a community identifies their role during a crisis and the resources are available during crisis, it decreases the level of anxiety during the crises.

There are opportunities to make the best of every situation and it’s usually based on how you frame it. In your opinion or experience, what’s the first thing people should do when they first realize they are in a crisis situation? What should they do next?

I first heard John Wooden’s quote, “Things turn out best for those who make the best out of the way things turn out,” in college and it sticks with me to this day. Understanding that life will provide lemons and we all have a decision to make about what we are going to do with the fruit we have been given. During a crisis, it is most important to both define roles and identify goals as well as use those resources required to end the crisis.

What do you believe are the characteristics or traits needed to survive a crisis?

The best characteristics to survive a crisis include determination, courage, open-mindedness, and dedication.

When you think of those traits, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?

Currently, the greatest example would be our first responders and their response to the coronavirus. Every day, first responders across the country are recognizing the crisis at hand and identifying the roles and resources available, executing the best outcomes for patients. Both their courage and open-mindedness coupled with the sheer determination and dedication in the challenges presented by COVID-19 are to be applauded.

Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?

At one time during my medical career, I did not perform as well as I had anticipated on tests. In re-examining my performance, I enlisted the help of others to analyze my test-taking skills to identify any obstacles that were getting in my way. Once I was able to recognize those challenges and redirect my focus, I performed well. That experience provided such insight that I was able to carry over my focus on test-taking skills to both medical students and residents alleviating any challenges related to in-service or board exams ensuring their success.

Here is the main question of our discussion. Crises not only have the potential to jeopardize and infiltrate your work, but they also threaten your emotional stability and relationships. Based on your military experience, what are 5 steps that someone can take to survive and thrive in these situations? Please share a story or an example for each.

It is my experience as a physician and noted challenges as a human being that both emotional and relationship crises are some of the most difficult challenges to address because they are not so obviously seen. You and I can walk the same path or maybe even share an office with someone every day and not be aware of the magnitude of personal or interpersonal challenges that individuals are experiencing on a daily basis. Steps to address and move past personal challenges begin with accepting that there is a problem, identifying resources to assist in successfully addressing these crises, as well as the determination and commitment to be consistent in the ongoing dynamics of the situation ensuring the crisis will not return.

Ok. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

Health disparities in this country are an uncomfortable truth. For instance, a patient can go to two different hospitals in different parts of the country with the same complaint and their outcome will be different solely based on location due to both medical management and resources available. The health disparities that exist in the United States for civilians are not as prominent within the military as there are structured policies to ensure that regardless of military installation, resources and management are universally available and if not they are made available without significant red tape. That narrative is not easily found in the civilian setting of medical management.

We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them :-)

If given the opportunity I would feel honored to sit and have a conversation with retired four-star U.S. Army General and American statesman Colin L. Powell. Gen. Powell is one of the giants within military history. I remember watching him in admiration while he navigated with what appeared to be ease during a crisis. To gain his insight and share in his experiences would be extremely rewarding and would be a significant benefit to my practice as a physician and in my role as a Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Army reserves.

How can our readers follow you online?

Dr. Colbert Social Media:






Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.



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