Aug. 29, 2011 – Above Kimberly P. Toone, M.D.’s office, sleek F-18 jets roar off into the sky from the ship’s flight deck and the deep blue ocean stretches out in all directions.
The 1997 UF College of Medicine graduate is senior medical officer aboard the Norfolk, Va.-based U.S.S. George H.W. Bush CVN-77, which is the newest U.S. Navy aircraft carrier. A commander in the U.S. Navy Medical Corps, Toone was appointed to the job in March 2011 and is currently the only woman holding such a position.
“I really love what I do,” Toone said. “I’m one of those very lucky people who is doing a job that makes them wonderfully happy.”
Toone, a family medicine doctor with a master’s degree in public health, cares for the ship’s 5,000-person crew and oversees its 50-bed hospital, which includes a three-bed intensive care unit. She also is the medical provider for four other smaller ships, which have approximately 1,000 crew members combined.
“So all in all, I have close to 6,000 people I’m responsible for,” she said in a phone interview from the ship.
Toone also serves as the ship’s public health officer, which involves everything from ensuring the safety of the crew’s food and water to performing radiation health physicals on individuals who work on the ship’s two nuclear reactors.
The U.S.S. George H.W. Bush left Norfolk May 11 on its first deployment to Europe and the Middle East. It stands 20 stories above the waterline and is more than 1,000 feet long with a 4.5-acre flight deck.
For the next seven months, the aircraft carrier is both Toone’s home and office. When she isn’t working, her living quarters are below the huge aircraft hangars on the ship.
It will be December before she returns home to Pensacola and sees her husband, Michael, who is currently a stay-at-home dad, and 10-year-old daughter, Sarah, again. It’s hard being away from her family, but she said they are supportive.
“Separation is difficult but you just accept it,” she said. “It’s a hard life—but I really love it, and I work with great people.”
Toone admits that because she is a woman, some may question her choice to deploy for months at a time but that doesn’t stop her from encouraging other women to follow their interests.
“Find what you love to do and do it, no matter what other people tell you,” she said. “The only limitations are the ones you put on yourself.”
Being in the middle of the ocean can also present challenges on the job. Toone often has to manage complex cases from afar with limited resources, but she said she likes being forced to be more creative in caring for her patients.
She recalled a young man who suffered a cardiac complication from a smallpox inoculation. His chest pains were caused by an inflammation of the heart and an EKG performed on the ship revealed an abnormality. However, a nearby volcano in Iceland spewing ash made it impossible to fly the patient to a hospital on land, forcing Toone to consult a cardiologist in Virginia by telephone until the sailor could be transferred to a hospital in England.
On another day, during a recent E. coli outbreak in Europe, she had to determine which fresh vegetables were safe to bring onto the ship. Any infectious disease presenting in such close quarters is a danger to the ship’s mission.
“Whether it’s simple patient care or E. coli or a volcano—where do you get to do all this if you are based on land?” she said. “It’s all part of the wonderful opportunities that come with the job.”
Toone didn’t initially plan to make the military her career long term. She and a friend joined during the first year of medical shcool in order to pay for their medical education. Now, 18 years later, she is still serving proudly.
Medical school at UF was tough, but she said she made great friends and had wonderful teachers and mentors. She recalled Hugh M. “Smiley” Hill, M.D., the much-loved associate dean for student and alumni affairs, for his great sense of humor. Known for her outgoing bubbly personality, Toone said Hill joked that when he wrote a residency reference for her he would describe her as a “soft-spoken and morose young lady.”
Toone also recalled taking a class in alternative medicine her fourth year. The class met in the professor’s apartment and took field trips to a massage therapy school and an alternative medicine apothecary.
“It was a great learning experience,” she said. “We’d sit around and the attending would make us take off our shoes and we’d talk about how we felt that day.”
During medical school, Toone met her husband at a local dance club. He was also a student at UF, earning a bachelor’s degree in engineering and a master’s degree in recreation administration.
After medical school, Toone completed an internship in pediatrics at National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., then a residency in family medicine at the Naval Hospital in Jacksonville. She also completed an aerospace medicine residency in Pensacola, which included earning a master’s degree in public health.
She gave birth to her daughter Sarah while serving as a general flight surgeon for a helicopter squadron in Jacksonville, where she learned to fly a Navy Seahawk helicopter.
“I kept flying while I was pregnant—the squadron guys loved it,” she said with a laugh. “They even threw me a baby shower. My daughter had a plethora of toy helicopters even before she was born.”
Toone has also served overseas as a family practice physician at a U.S. Naval Hospital and a flight surgeon for a U.S. Marine Corps Air Station in Okinawa, Japan. During that time, she was deployed to Indonesia to help establish a clinic for victims injured in the 2006 earthquake.
Another incredible experience, she said, was the opportunity to provide medical support for five space shuttle launches from Cape Canaveral. NASA kept flight surgeons on standby, in case they were needed for the shuttle crew, she said.
From the constant hum of the ship’s machinery to the close-knit team of health care professionals she lives and works with everyday, Toone feels at home on the ship and enjoys the variety of her work.
“It’s very satisfying—everyday something different is going on and everything is a challenge,” she said. “This is my dream job.”