Oct. 2, 2015
How a career in emergency medicine introduced an alumna to helicopters and kangaroos
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Laura Diegelmann, M.D., was mesmerized by the stories her father used to share around the dinner table.
She was a teenager then, but remembers vividly the detailed accounts of life and death he gave while volunteering with the local rescue squad. She knew then that what she was hearing would shape the rest of her life.
“I think it was the excitement that drew me in,” she said. “I wanted to be a part of that.”
When she turned 16, Diegelmann signed up as a volunteer EMT with the rescue squad near her Richmond-area home. Her father, Robert Diegelmann, Ph.D. — a longtime faculty member in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine — was often the driver, and the two headed out on calls together.
“It was amazing,” she said. “That sealed the deal for me.”
Her experience as an EMT confirmed her desire to work in emergency medicine. After earning a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences in 2002, she worked for a year on the MCV Campus as a tech in the emergency room. She entered the School of Medicine the following year.
During her third year, she completed an internal medicine rotation in Alaska. While there, her supervising physician introduced her to the crew of Guardian Flight. Diegelmann flew a few times with them to remote areas of the state, providing emergency care to those in need. The adventure exposed her to a whole new world.
“It combined all the ambulance stuff I love — and then you get to throw an airplane into the mix,” she said. “Who could ask for more?”
Diegelmann completed her emergency medicine residency at the University of Maryland, then packed her bags for Australia, where she spent a year with the Royal Flying Doctors.
“Living somewhere I’d never been before was exciting in itself,” she said. “But then I’m putting on a flight suit and rappelling out of helicopters to treat patients. Wow!”
Many of her missions involved transferring patients from small clinics in the Outback to larger hospitals. She also responded to traumas at farms or to other medical emergencies, such as a heart attack or stroke. Many times, the places she flew were so remote she didn’t see a house for miles. She and her team often landed next to open fields.
Sometimes we would have to circle around to scare the kangaroos from the airstrip.
“Sometimes we would have to circle around to scare the kangaroos from the airstrip,” she said.
While she loved the adventure, one year away from her parents and four siblings was enough. She returned to the states and completed a fellowship in emergency medicine ultrasound at the University of Maryland.
In 2013, the travel bug hit again. This time, she ventured to Cape Town, South Africa, to teach emergency ultrasound at a local hospital. She also was involved with an ongoing study that continues to examine whether the early intervention of ultrasound in severely septic patients makes a difference in treatment plans.
“I really formed an attachment to South Africa,” Diegelmann said. “You really feel appreciated there. Patients there can travel all day just to see a doctor. They are there because they truly need help — they truly need you. It makes me realize why I became a doctor in the first place: to help people.”
I think that’s why most of us go into medicine in the first place. We want to do our part.
After South Africa, Diegelmann headed to Rwanda and has been back a second time teaching emergency ultrasound at the main hospital there. She also spent a month in Liberia, where she taught emergency ultrasound to the residents at JFK Hospital. All the while she remains on faculty and as an emergency room physician at the University of Maryland.
“I really start to miss home when I am gone,” Diegelmann said. “Every time I go, I say this will be my last one. But it’s hard to walk away from. It’s so rewarding. I’m not only expanding my own knowledge and experience, but I know I’m making a difference. I think that’s why most of us go into medicine in the first place. We want to do our part.”
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