Navy Veteran, Chief of Nuclear Medicine at Truman VA

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The following feature is part of the series, VA scholars who have served. These profiles bring to life the critical work that VA scholars do for the veteran community and highlight and recognize their military service, while including a touch of human interest and an inspirational tone.

Dr. Thomas Purinton Dresser, a Navy veteran, is the chief of nuclear medicine at Harry S. Truman Memorial Veterans’ Hospital in Missouri. As a general practitioner in nuclear medicine, he performs various diagnostic and therapeutic interventions. He is the author of 31 articles, mainly on nuclear medicine, which involves the use of radioactive drugs in research, diagnosis and treatment. He is also a clinical professor of radiology and medicine at the University of Missouri, where he received a doctorate in physiology in 1972 and an MD in 1974. He served in the Navy Medical Corps from 1971 to 1992, reaching the the rank of captain in 1987. His awards include National Defense, Humanitarian Service, Navy Commendation, and Meritorious Service medals.

What prompted you to join the army?

Dresser, a Navy veteran, is a co-author of a clinical trial looking at the effectiveness of a drug in pinpointing the location of prostate cancer in the body.

My grandfather, Thomas Purinton, enlisted in the navy at 16 in 1899 and was assigned to the square rigger USS Essex, and my Massachusetts ancestors fought in the Revolutionary War, so I was supportive of the military service. When I was a sophomore medical student in 1971, a colleague of mine was accepted into the Medical Osteopathy Scholarship Program, which is the Department of Defense program to recruit future doctors. I was also accepted and became an active duty naval ensign while completing medical school.

What inspired your research career?

Since my childhood, I have had an analytical and quantitative view of the world. As my academic skills developed, I could apply those interests in meaningful ways. I came to see academic medicine in the military and the VA as encouraging environments to pursue research. When I first applied for a Navy Medical Fellowship in the 1970s, Dr. Donald Custis was the Navy Surgeon General. [He was later VA’s chief medical director.] I remember it very well because I applied and was not accepted. Then I wrote him a personal letter saying, “I really, really, really want to join the Navy and be a Navy Surgeon.” I was accepted two weeks later.

When and where did you serve in the military? Describe your military experience.

I served at a naval hospital in Oakland, California from 1974 to 1992. After training in internal medicine and nuclear medicine, I became a staff physician, department head, and service line chief. In 1985, I became head of the research department. In 1986 I was a surgeon for an amphibious squadron and served aboard the USS New Orleans, an amphibious assault ship. Understanding and using the operational structure of the military has been a major positive influence in my professional career.

What types of research are you involved in? What impact can this have on veterans?

Myocardial perfusion imaging is very useful in evaluating veterans with heart disease. The analysis of 50,000 patient studies has given rise to numerous publications and has served as the basis for the establishment of a training program for doctors at the Cardiovascular Disease Fellowship, of which I am the director. Currently, with my colleague Dr. Timothy Hoffman, we are conducting a Phase III clinical trial of Ga68-PSMA-11, a radiopharmaceutical that aids the process of cancer detection, to evaluate patients with prostate carcinoma. This type of radiopharmaceutical seems to be the best diagnostic tool to assess the stage of prostate cancer and whether it has metastasized in the body.

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