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VA Researchers Who Served: Dr. Gary Gilkeson

Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center

April 14, 2020

 Gary Gilkeson, an Air Force Veteran, is a physician in the rheumatology division at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston, South Carolina.
Gary Gilkeson, an Air Force Veteran, is a physician in the rheumatology division at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston, South Carolina.

Gary Gilkeson, an Air Force Veteran, is a physician in the rheumatology division at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston, South Carolina.

Dr. Gary Gilkeson, an Air Force Veteran, is a physician in the rheumatology division at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston, South Carolina. He focuses his research on the causes of and treatments for the disease lupus, a long-term disorder in which the body’s immune system become hyperactive and attacks normal, healthy tissue. Symptoms include inflammation, swelling, and damage to the joints, skin, kidneys, blood, heart, and lungs. He previously served as the chief of rheumatology at the Charleston VA and at the VA hospital in Durham, North Carolina. He has authored more than 250 peer-reviewed papers and is also an associate dean at the Medical University of South Carolina. In the 1980s, he served as a medical officer at Carswell Air Force Base in Texas for four years and in the Air Force Reserve for two years.



What motivated you to join the military?

I joined the military because of the physician education program, which provided me the funds to go to medical school. I enjoyed the opportunity to pursue my career while serving my country.



What inspired your research career?

I completed some research papers while I was a student at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School and began doing research again when I was a rheumatology-immunology fellow at Duke University in North Carolina. I enjoyed the intellectual challenge of research, the potential to improve the lives of people with lupus, and the opportunity to continue to see patients while doing research.



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

One of the mentors who inspired me in my research career was Dr. Jim Willerson, a professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School. Another professor, Dr. David Pisetsky, inspired me during my fellowship at Duke University. Many other colleagues and mentees were also very important in my research career. In the military, my colleagues at Carswell Air Force Base inspired me, including Dr. Tim Carlos, Dr. Jose Guttierez-Nunes, and Dr. David Wilkes, among others. A colonel, Dr. Dale Cloyd, was a great medicine chief at Carswell and exemplified what it took to be a be a soldier and a doctor. He mentored us in how to achieve that balance.



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

I served four years at Carswell Air Force Base as a general internist (1982 to 1986). It was a teaching hospital with a physician assistant program and a family medicine residency. Doing internal medicine clinics, attending on the in-patient wards, and teaching the residents and physician assistant students was a challenging and gratifying position. I also temporarily served four- to six-week stints as a relief physician at March Air Force Base in California, Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, and Loring Air Force Base in Maine. During my time at Carswell, I became attracted to rheumatology as a specialty due to the patients I saw there. I strongly believe that the military training I received was key to me developing a leadership style and an understanding of how to work with people.



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

My whole research career has been focused on trying to find the cause of and treatments for the disease lupus. I’ve been concentrating, for example, on the reason women are nine times more likely than men to contract the disease. My colleagues and I investigate the differences between men and women with the immune system, which impacts disease areas including responses to vaccines and infections. We are also pursuing research in using mesenchymal stromal cells—from which bone, cartilage, and fat are derived—for treating refractory lupus, a failure to obtain clinical remission after immunosuppressive therapy. If successful, these cells will provide a new therapeutic option for autoimmune diseases. We are expanding to other disease areas. There are rising numbers of women and minorities in the armed forces, leading to increases in patients with lupus and other autoimmune diseases in our clinic at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center.



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

My military experience influenced me to be engaged with VA both in a research and a clinical sense. My military experience led me to choose rheumatology as a sub-specialty and to pursue a career as a physician-scientist. I find that Veterans appreciate seeing a physician who is also a Veteran and has a handle on the challenges of serving in the military.



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

I hope that my research has impacted the lives of Veterans and non-Veterans with lupus. I have used the discoveries of others to advance the understanding of lupus, and I hope that my research findings will be followed by others to develop new treatments and findings. My clinical care at both the VA in Charleston and the VA in Durham has impacted the patients we see with rheumatic diseases.



Does being a Veteran give you a greater emotional tie to the work you’re doing or more insight into Veterans’ needs?

I believe it provides a unique insight and understanding. I’m very proud to be a Veteran, and I value the time and lessons that I learned while in the Air Force. Knowing the health care system in the military enables me to better understand what the Veteran has gone through.



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

The keys to my success have been having great supporters and mentors in my life leading up to my research career. This started with my parents, high school teachers, college professors, and my medical school, residency, and fellowship professors. This continued with mentors during my early faculty years that were giving of their time and expertise. I also believe that establishing collaborations around the world before the advent of team science was a key to success. I have also always looked at what is hot in other fields. Applying that knowledge to my research of lupus has served me well. I also pride myself on training mentees and developing them as independent investigators. The success they achieve augments my success. Finally, not being afraid to take a chance on a research area has opened new areas of investigation for me. Despite these very challenging times in research, I believe if you are dedicated and willing to change and listen to others, and if you are creative, success is still possible.



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

My plans are to continue the current course of research and patient care that I have enjoyed for the last 25 years. In serving as the chief of rheumatology at the VA medical centers in Charleston and Durham, I learned that higher administration is not one of my better talents. There are others better and more qualified than I am. I believe I can best serve Veterans by continuing my clinical and research endeavors and by serving as a liaison between the VA and the Medical University of South Carolina.


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