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Fulfilling a Dream in a Different Way

October 25, 2019
Tom Doucette (far right) with his Iraq team members in front of the truck that hit an IED bomb.
Tom Doucette (far right) with his Iraq team members in front of the truck that hit an IED bomb.

Tom Doucette had dreamed of becoming a fighter pilot for as long as he could remember. However, he grew to 6 feet, 5 inches tall during high school, making it impossible to fit into a jet’s tiny cockpit and thwarting his dream.

Then came the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. That watershed day solidified the teenage Doucette’s thoughts of pursuing a military career, and he decided to enlist in the Marine Corps once he graduated from high school.

After basic training, he was sent to Iraq, where during his first few months he had a roadside encounter with an IED packed with 40 pounds of homemade explosives. The blast rocked the truck in which Doucette was riding, concussing him and other team members. Although he didn’t experience any other serious injuries during the rest of his four-year tour, he developed a keen understanding about the effects of bombings.

By the time he left the Marines as a sergeant in 2009, Doucette also had picked up some medical training and was in school to become an athletic trainer. All that knowledge would come in handy four years later at the 2013 Boston Marathon, the second event that would alter his career trajectory.

When the first bomb went off that April day, Doucette was volunteering in one of the medical tents at the finish line on Boylston Street. “The hairs on the back of my neck stood up and I thought, ‘That is an eerily familiar sound,’” he recalls. “I remember thinking, ‘This may not be over just yet.’”

He was right. Two homemade bombs killed three people and injured hundreds—more carnage than he had witnessed during his tour of duty. “I don’t think I’d ever seen anything quite like that,” he says. “It was sensory overload initially, but at that point your training starts to take over.”

Racing toward the explosions with little thought of his own personal safety, he came upon a young girl with a gash to her leg and carried her back to one of the medical tents. He would help several more people, most of them suffering shrapnel wounds to their lower extremities. “It was certainly humbling to be part of that effort,” he says of that day.

“It was also awe-inspiring to see the medical personnel and volunteers respond so well under such extreme conditions.”

Spurred by the work he witnessed by the medical professionals at the scene, he decided to change goals once again, from physical therapy to becoming a physician assistant. After completing the required 1,000 hours of direct patient care, he arrived at the MGH Institute in 2016 to begin the 25-month Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies program.

One year after graduating, the 32-year-old Doucette works in the orthopaedic surgery department at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. And in April, the former high school football star and basketball team captain returned to the Boston Marathon, this time as a runner, when he completed the 26.2-mile course in a respectable 4:12. His run raised more than $5,000 for the Institute’s PA Studies Fund, giving back to the school that helped him fulfill his mission of making a difference—on the ground, not in the air.

 — By Beverly Ford