For his third career, he chose medicine

August 18, 2006

A successful engineer and military man, Bruce Stafford made a midlife change that fulfilled an improbable dream.

To mark the end of their first year at the Oklahoma State University College of Osteopathic Medicine, Bruce Stafford and some of his classmates assembled at a local Tulsa bar and exchanged a series of gag awards.

Stafford received his for his work that year, 1996, as class sergeant-at-arms, a role that came naturally to the former military man. "Good morning!" he would exclaim to his fellow students every time a lecture was about to begin. If that didn't establish the proper order, he would turn up the decibel level and shout, "Children!"

The role of paterfamilias also came easily to Stafford, who was more than 25 years older than many of his fellow students. Indeed, at 48, he'd already had a successful career as an electrical engineer with AT&T, as well as a second career in the US Army Reserve and the Army National Guard. But, as satisfying as his engineering career had been (unfortunately, he couldn't say the same for all of his military service), he wanted something different.

That idea had crystallized for him several years earlier, on a trip to Honduras with the Army National Guard. Led by a PA, a group of the guardsmen traveled to a remote village in the southern mountains. A long line of people greeted them, eager to see the PA, whom they regarded as the American "el médico." Stafford assisted in administering worm medicine. "I was heartbroken at the circumstances of the people I saw in that village," he wrote in an autobiographical essay that he's posted on the Internet.

He then described how, several hours later, an 18-year-old girl with a cleft palate so disfiguring that she couldn't eat solid food showed up with her family. When she looked at Stafford, he wrote, he heard "a spiritual voice saying, 'I have a new job for you.' "

With some encouragement from his alma mater, the University of Oklahoma, Stafford began a self-directed premed program, taking all the physical science courses that he'd never had time for as an undergraduate engineering student.

But by the time he was ready to apply, the university's college of medicine didn't take his application seriously. "They probably thought I was having some kind of midlife crisis and would never really follow through on things," he says, looking back.

The OSU College of Osteopathic Medicine, however, thought otherwise. Stafford was delighted, albeit realistic: "I didn't expect to be any kind of academic star. Heck, I was competing with 20-year-old kids. I just wanted to make it through and get to where I wanted to be."

In 2000, at the age of 52, with a wife and two grown daughters, Stafford graduated from medical school. Four years later, after completing his residency in family medicine at the University of Oklahoma, he opened a solo practice in Choctaw, OK, a small city 25 minutes or so east of Oklahoma City.

A love for kids-and empathy for what ails his seniors

In the two years since, Stafford's practice has grown rapidly. Roughly 80 percent of his patients are covered by Medicaid, and 70 percent of those are children, which is fine with Stafford. "I just love kids," he says.

The non-Medicaid portion of his practice is divided almost equally between Medicare patients and those covered by commercial and other plans, including TRICARE, the military health system run by the US Department of Defense. (Tinker Air Force Base is located just east of Oklahoma City.)