John Thurman Jr. didn’t expect to be lying in a Walter Reed National Military Medical Center bed. The U.S. Military Academy graduate had served in Kuwait and Iraq – receiving the Commendation Medal for Meritorious Service in 2007 – and was working in West Point’s admissions office when his captain asked him to play on the department’s Ultimate Frisbee team.
Thurman resisted at first, but his commander was insistent. After all, their match was against the math department. Thurman had played on the Army football team. How hard could this be?
One mistimed jump later and his knee was shredded. Multiple ligaments and tendons were torn. His knee was bending the wrong direction. He had nerve damage and foot trauma. So there he was, at Walter Reed.
It was during that time his wife, Audrey, noticed something different about the doctors. They didn’t only ask how her husband was doing, but how she was doing, too. Thurman asked them about their methods, and they explained they were doctors of osteopathic medicine. When he told them he was considering a future in medicine, they urged him to check out a book: “The DOs” by Norman Gevitz, PhD, A.T. Still University of Health Sciences’ (ATSU) senior vice president-academic affairs.
That’s how John Thurman Jr., DO, ’12, found ATSU’s Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine (ATSU-KCOM).
Dr. Thurman spoke to ATSU audiences on March 6 in Kirksville, Missouri, and Mesa, Arizona, for the University’s Reflection of Black History Month. Now a family medicine physician in Iowa, Dr. Thurman discussed his own story and those of African Americans throughout history, framed by Frederick Douglass’ quote, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”
“This statement serves as the basis for progress in my life, this statement serves as the basis for Black History Month, this statement serves as the basis for Dr. (Martin Luther) King (Jr.)’s life and legacy,” Dr. Thurman said.
“You can’t have anything that doesn’t come from some kind of struggle.”
He spoke of slaves who revolted against their captors, marching into a Georgia swamp in a mass suicide. Igbo Landing took on important meaning in African American folklore as the story of their resistance spread. He spoke of Sen. Hiram Rhodes Revels, the first African American in the U.S. Senate, and of Cudjoe Lewis, the second-to-last known survivor of the Atlantic slave trade. And he spoke of Carter G. Woodson, a pivotal figure in the establishment of Black History Month.
Their struggles and sacrifices for progress were instrumental in black history.
“Frederick Douglass’ statement, without struggle there is no progress, is a very worthy thing to carry through life,” Dr. Thurman said. “I think of Dr. King, I think of my grandmother … I think of people who gave so much. I think of us in the present who are working to pave the way to an improved future.”
Dr. Thurman’s future in medicine was initially inspired by trying times in which he felt powerless while serving in the U.S. Army during Operation Iraqi Freedom. In one instance, a young girl had been struck by a truck and needed emergency medical help. He gathered food for the family, spoke with them, and spent time around them until she was able to be transferred to a facility for treatment.
He couldn’t explain why he spent so much time with that family, but the entire experience affected him. He began to contemplate a future in medicine so he could more directly help those in need.
After reading “The DOs,” Dr. Thurman knew he wanted to attend ATSU-KCOM. His wife was able to study at Truman State University, making Kirksville, Missouri, a perfect place for each to pursue their education. But it wasn’t easy. Being seven-years removed from his undergraduate work left him rusty in the classroom. He’s not ashamed to say he needed an extra year for his studies.
“Perseverance and continuing to push ourselves in the service of others is ultimately the message of Black History Month,” Dr. Thurman said.
Dr. Thurman is certified by the American Board of Family Medicine and American Osteopathic Board of Family Physicians. He’s also a Kirksville Osteopathic Alumni Association board member.
He stays attached to ATSU-KCOM and Kirksville, Missouri, because of ATSU’s mission, its history, and its commitment to excellence.
“This place has tried to make physicians who stand above, who are a cut above,” Dr. Thurman said. “We’re not putting out doctors just to put out doctors, or creating more medical schools to create more students and get more tuition. There’s an actual mission here of developing osteopathic physicians to serve the greater good.”
That level of service to patients is something Dr. Thurman puts into practice every day. He takes pride in showing all patients he cares about them as individuals. It’s an attitude he believes transcends practicing medicine. Dr. Thurman said that approach is necessary in lifting people up to show them what’s possible, be that addressing underrepresentation of people of color in medicine or breaking cycles of poverty and socioeconomic struggles.
He believes those in academia and professional fields have a duty to take active roles in the lives of children and help them find paths toward new opportunities.
“This is something on a global scale,” Dr. Thurman said. “It’s a large swath of society that needs to feel like people care about them and that they do have a chance.
“People need to believe that people do believe in them and that they matter.”
Visit our YouTube channel to listen to Dr. Thurman’s speech.