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Felicia Pehrson, M.D. (SOM)

Felicia PehrsonA Military Medical Leader Outshines Her Personal Best

School of Medicine

Felicia Pehrson’s plan was simple: Go to medical school, specialize in surgery, return to Maine. But a 30-year detour in the U.S. Army has taken her across the globe, to extraordinary opportunities and experiences and to the highest levels of military medical leadership—and beyond.

From a young age, Felicia F. Pehrson, M.D. ’87, FACC, knew she wanted to be a doctor. But life is full of detours, and Dr. Pehrson took one that forever changed her course when she went into the U.S. Army. There, the 2015 Alumni Association Medal of Honor recipient discovered her love of pediatrics, medical leadership and the chance to accomplish more than she ever imagined.

Dr. Pehrson grew up in Maine, the fifth of six children, with parents who survived the Holocaust. Her life plan was straightforward: attend medical school, specialize in surgery and return to Maine to practice. But, during her first year at New York Medical College, her father became ill and she needed tuition assistance. She joined the Army. “My original plan was to pay back my three years of military service and be done,” she says. The Army had other ideas: constantly giving her opportunities that propelled her to the highest levels of military medical leadership, all the way to her current position as director of healthcare delivery in the Office of the Surgeon General. “Here I am, more than 30 years later, still in uniform.”

Dr. Pehrson hadn’t dreamed of becoming a pediatrician or a pediatric cardiologist, but she fell in love with the challenges— and the children—during her internship and residency at Washington, D.C.’s Walter Reed Army Medical Center (now Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.). It was while working at the 121st Medical Evacuation Hospital (now the Brian Allgood Army Community Hospital) in Seoul, South Korea, where she mobilized the air-evacuation of an extremely premature, 540-gram (approximately 1.2 pounds) baby, that she recognized her passion for leading under pressure. The Army recognized it too. 

She rose swiftly. In 1994, soon after completing her pediatric cardiology fellowship at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Ontario, she became a service chief; first at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, a U.S. overseas military hospital in Germany, then at Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu, Hawaii. She advanced to department chief at Womack Army Medical Center at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. “That was when I realized how much I enjoyed the ability to influence health care beyond the individual patient,” she recalls.

During the next decade, she was selected for prestigious positions, including chief of clinical operations for the MultiNational Force–Iraq, for which she was awarded a Bronze Star Medal. As deputy commander for clinical services and chief medical officer at Walter Reed from 2008 to 2011, she was responsible for the care of hundreds of thousands of patients annually, many with the most complex injuries of war; she oversaw 4,000 military and civilian staff; supervised 66 graduate medical education programs; and balanced hundreds of millions of budgetary dollars, earning a Legion of Merit military medal.

Dr. Pehrson’s numerous honors also include the German Armed Forces’ Badge for Military Proficiency, a testament to her athletic steeliness: she excelled in track and field events such as shot put, long jump, 100–meter and 2000–meter runs; as well as a 200–meter swim, a pistol competition, and a 10– mile march carrying a 40–pound pack. “I undertook this as a personal challenge at a late age, as a hospital commander and as a role model for my soldiers. I wanted to demonstrate what can be accomplished when you put your heart and mind into something.”

Today, Dr. Pehrson directs health care delivery and clinical policies for the U.S. Army. In addition, she chairs the Women’s Health Task Force, and serves on another task force that is working to make the Military Health System a ‘high reliability’ health care organization. She hopes to return to pediatric cardiology someday. When she does, she will still be a leader. “I have a vision for how to improve organizations, I can see a path to get there, and I have the passion to make it happen.”