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Man reflects on health care career with Navy

Mark Chesney retired from the Navy after 25 years as an independent duty corpsman, a unique job that afforded him the chance to extend health care to other servicemen and women while seeing the world.

“It’s been very rewarding and humbling at the same time,” Chesney said.

Independent duty corpsman, or IDCs, are enlisted sailors assigned to Navy and Marine Corps units across the globe trained to practice medicine without physicians.

Their main duty is the health and welfare of the unit of which they are assigned, according to Chesney.

He described them as physician extenders who practice medicine under indirect supervision, providing care to active duty service members in clinics, on board ships, on submarines or with ground forces.

Chesney perhaps could not have foreseen a long career in the military, let alone performing the job of an IDC.

After graduating in 1993 from South Williamsport Area High School, he enrolled in Edinboro University, but left college after just one year.

“I did not have the discipline I needed for college life,” he said. “I needed direction.”

Chesney seemed to find his way after joining the military.

When he first enlisted in the Navy, he wanted to be a quartermaster, but found there were no openings for those jobs.

He was asked to explore other options.

“My mother was a nurse. I was good with anatomy,” he said.

And so, Chesney launched a military career that took him to different spots on the globe as an IDC.

His tours of duty have included those aboard ships and in Navy hospitals, clinics and other venues.

“People don’t really know what we do,” Chesney said. “It’s a cross between physician assistant, paramedic, nurse, health educator, and jack-of-all-trades.”

The origin of IDC’s can be traced to before World War I when they served independently on ships and submarines as the sole medical provider, according to Chesney.

They are responsible for making life-saving decisions to include surgical intervention and resuscitation in austere environments. They can perform minor procedures, prescribe medication, order ancillary studies, and consult with specialty providers.

While there is no certification or a licensure process for becoming an IDC, most who perform the job have furthered their education in clinical medicine, healthcare management, or other related fields.

Chesney holds a bachelor’s degree in Healthcare Management from Touro University and a master’s degree in Organizational Leadership from Trident University.

But perhaps the bulk of his learning has occurred on the job.

As often the sole health care provider on a ship or other site, an IDC faces an often intense and challenging job requiring any combination of leadership, decision-making and critical thinking skills.

Being an IDC, Chesney noted, includes restless nights wondering if he did everything he could to help a patient. Often, his job involves finding more adequate care for a critically ill patient which means evacuating that person or waiting for help to arrive.

He recalled one particular incident involving a patient aboard a ship who was seriously ill with pneumonia and needed to be transported from the middle of the Indian Ocean to a medical facility.

“We are very limited with our medical capabilities,” he said.

Beyond providing medical care, an IDC manages health-related programs such as inspecting food and berthing areas, assessing potable water and sanitation systems, performing CPR training, and conducting health and wellness programs.

Chesney’s career has included nine deployments with the Marine Corps to Japan and Africa, ship duty in the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf, and assignments in the Middle East to provide care to sailors and marines.

He has to Laos serving as the senior medical provider for a team searching for the remains of a downed pilot from the Vietnam War.

“The best time are my deployments,” he said.

Married with two children, Chesney most recently served with Naval Medical Force Atlantic in Portsmouth, Virginia as regional manager for more than 200 IDC’s.

In February, he conducted a training program for the Cleveland Clinic, sharing his knowledge of his unique health care experiences.

He plans to continue in health care or program management in civilian life.

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