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VA Researchers Who Served: Dr. Donald McGeary

South Texas Veterans Medical Center

November 7, 2022

Dr. Donald McGeary focuses on traumatic brain injury and chronic pain management in his role as a clinical psychologist at the South Texas Veterans Medical Center.

Dr. Donald McGeary focuses on traumatic brain injury and chronic pain management in his role as a clinical psychologist at the South Texas Veterans Medical Center.

Dr. Donald McGeary, who has held civil service appointments in the Army and Air Force, is a clinical psychologist at the South Texas Veterans Medical Center in San Antonio. He’s also a tenured professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center. He’s a nationally recognized subject matter expert in chronic pain management, with emphasis on non-medication management of chronic pain among military service members and Veterans with trauma-related injuries. He’s published more than 90 peer-reviewed papers on chronic pain management and is now the principal investigator on four trials on pain management. He earned a doctorate in clinical psychology in 2003 from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.

What motivated you to join the civil service in the military?

I spent some time running a pain study at Wilford Hall, an Air Force medical center for outpatient care at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, and I completed a postdoctoral fellowship with the Air Force as a civilian at Lackland in 2004. I think the esprit de corps there was contagious because I left my faculty position at a civilian university to take a GS civil service position with the Air Force and later the Army. I was proud to belong with such an outstanding group of people.

What inspired your research career?

I’m a clinician first. But I’ve always seen research as the best version of clinical care. It can get easy to fall into a clinical rut, doing the same treatments. But research creates an opportunity to identify weak spots in clinical practice and work with a team to fill those gaps.

Did you have mentors who inspired you in life, the military, or your research career?

My research mentor was Dr. Bob Gatchel, a pain researcher at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. Bob was the first person to stimulate my research interest in pain management. When I took on my civil service position, I was inspired by now-retired Lt. Col. Ann Hryshko-Mullen, my supervisor during my postdoctoral fellowship, and now-retired Lt. Col. Alan Peterson, one of my foremost research mentors.

When and where did you work in the civil service? Describe your experience.

My first civil service position was at Wilford Hall, where I worked as a clinical health psychologist and was associate director of the clinical health psychology postdoctoral fellowship. I stayed at Wilford Hall from 2003 to 2010 and later transitioned to the Warrior Resiliency Program (WRP) at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, where I had the opportunity to work with now-retired colonels Bruce Crow and Dennis Grill. While at the WRP, I helped establish the first embedded trauma, risk, and resiliency fellowship in the U.S. Army. I acquired valuable first-hand experience working with soldiers, leadership, and policymakers on trauma and resilience issues that would inform my future research programs.

What kinds of research are you involved in? How does it potentially impact Veterans?

My research involves military chronic pain management, with an emphasis on trauma comorbidities. In other words, I investigate how treatments need to change or be tailored to Veterans and active-duty service members when chronic pain presents with comorbid trauma conditions like PTSD and traumatic brain injury (TBI). My current projects include a study of a treatment for comorbid headache and TBI and a study of pain management in military primary care.

Did your experience in the civil service inspire you to pursue a career as a VA researcher? Is your military experience connected in some way to your VA research?

Yes. When I worked as a civil service Air Force clinician, I saw several of my active-duty patients transition to VA. I realized that chronic pain can start in the military but is treated long-term in VA. VA clinical care and research is extraordinarily important. Both are interesting to me because many of our injured or traumatized service members will receive most of their care in the VA system.

How do you feel about the possibility of making life better for Veterans through your research?

That’s why I do this. It’s always nice to get a paper published or to secure a grant award. But my best experiences have been talking with the Veterans who complete my trials and come out of them with a better quality of life. There’s no feeling like it. My experiences working with the armed forces helped me appreciate my work with Veterans today.

Based on your life experiences to date, what do you believe are the keys to success? What motivational tips would you share?

For new clinicians and researchers, I always say that we should think critically about the work we do with our Veterans. We’re all very busy as it is, so taking additional time to think through our processes can just add more burden. However, if we take time to evaluate and share our thoughts with others, we are better equipped to notice inefficiencies or gaps in care and develop new ways to make care better.

What’s the next step for you in your VA career?

As my research career has evolved, I have increasingly learned to appreciate both the value of discovering new mechanisms and treatments for pain and trauma, and the importance of making these discoveries with clinical transition in mind. Large analyses of published research show that many of the benefits of new discoveries are lost when new treatments are introduced in the clinic, so we need to consider the health care system when we develop new treatments, so the benefit is preserved. The best way to do that is to work with one of the largest health care systems in the world, so I’m looking forward to my work with VA, as I increasingly steer my research toward more pragmatic solutions.

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