Dr. J.D. Polk’s stint as a U.S. Air Force Reserve flight surgeon and helicopter emergency physician led to his joining the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, where he served as chief of space medicine during the space shuttle era. Besides working directly with the astronauts, one of the high points of his career was being part of a four-person NASA team sent to Chile in 2010 to help engineer the rescue of 33 miners trapped underground for 68 days. After the shuttle program ended, he joined the Department of Homeland Security, where he served as assistant secretary for health affairs and chief medical officer in Washington, D.C. He recently was selected by a national search committee to lead Des Moines University’s College of Osteopathic Medicine. He began his new role in August. The previous dean, Dr. Kendall Reed, served in that position from 2003 until July 2012; Dr. David Plundo served as the interim dean for the past year. 

Did your Air Force training come before or after medical school? 

It came later; actually I went to medical school in Missouri and did my residency in Cleveland, Ohio. I was the chief of LifeFlight after residency; flying around in helicopters doing critical care, and enjoying the Air Force Reserve as well. I flew around in yellow helicopters during the week and green helicopters on the weekends. I did my Air Force training 
after residency. 

How did you connect with NASA and Homeland Security? 
One of the biggest assignments I had was supporting the launches and landings for the space shuttle in my reserve duty; that’s how I got to meet and got engrained with the NASA folks. Then after a few years, I got invited down to work for NASA, so I spent a decade in Houston working for one of their contractors initially. I kept rising in the ranks at NASA; I was the chief of medical operations, then chief of clinical operations and then chief of space medicine – taking care of the astronauts and the employees and working space missions. It was pretty interesting. After the retirement of the space shuttle program, things began to shrink a great deal at NASA. So at that time I got offered the position to be the principal deputy assistant secretary of homeland security in D.C., which I did for the past two years. It’s been an interesting ride, not your usual career path. 

What made you decide to shift from government to a medical school? 

I’ve always loved educating students, and I’ve always done a great deal of lecturing. I’m on the Commission for Osteopathic College Accreditation, which evaluates medical schools. We had just gotten to the point in my career where I thought, I’ve got enough certificates and medals and accolades. I’ve got to actually start teaching the next generation of D.O.s. Especially with the changes in health care right now, which are some pretty large changes, and with the growth of the osteopathic profession, this is probably the absolute best time to return to academia. 

How has the growth been in osteopathic medicine? 

I think it’s supply and demand, quite frankly. There is a great deal of demand for primary care physicians. Especially with the new accountable care (organizations), there’s even more demand for primary care physicians. We’ve always had as our business model in the D.O. world, producing primary care physicians mostly for rural areas, and that has become extremely important right now. Suddenly, there’s a demand for our product. So we’re increasing the number of schools and programs in order to meet that need. Preventive medicine and primary care have always been part of our mantra, and I think the rest of the world is catching up to us in that regard. 

What are the biggest challenges ahead in training physicians?   

The biggest challenge is that there are so many rapid changes in technology. You look at ultrasound now; it’s about the size of your iPad. It’s trying to achieve that balance with technology but not losing that personal touch. Patients don’t want to be just a number scanned by technology; they still want to see their doctor. Finding that fine line in how to embrace all those developments in medicine while not losing your sense of self and identity is going to be paramount. Patients want to know that somebody is listening and actually cares about their situation. 

What was your Department of Homeland Security role like? 

Most people probably wouldn’t realize that health care is involved in a great deal of national security issues. We weren’t just anti-terrorism; we also handle all hazards and all responses at Homeland Security, from tornadoes and natural disasters to Superstorm Sandy. The role for DHS, at least in health care, was to make sure that no particular disaster, whether it was man-made or natural, would start to encroach on national security. Even a pandemic, like a flu, could have a national security impact. It was very interesting to be at the White House very often in the situation room going through all these different things. It was also refreshing to see that the government at least looks at things in a holistic manner. 

So government isn’t as broken as Congress, perhaps? 

It is disheartening to see how polarized Congress and Washington, D.C., has become, but the folks who are actually doing the day-to-day work in any area of government have as their main focus the mission, and they don’t lose sight of that. 

How new is the Midwest to you?

Actually I grew up in a rural farm town in southern Ohio, so I know as much about DeKalb and Pioneer seed corn as I do about medicine. Quite frankly, it’s one of the things that drew me to Des Moines. The downtown is gorgeous with all the art, and is immaculate. With all the bike trails and things to do, it’s the perfect mix for me between urban and rural. I can go to the symphony downtown and then back to my house down the dirt road surrounded by cornfields (in Sugar Creek west of West Des Moines). 

What kind of hobbies do you have? 

My wife and I both really enjoy music; she was originally a music major as an undergrad. We both enjoy the symphony. We enjoy a lot of outdoor sports, whether it’s scuba diving, bicycling, hiking, just a whole host of things. I tell people I golf, but I’m not sure it really passes for golfing. We like to go pick a little town each weekend and go explore. That’s probably one of our more favorite things that we do. And we’re both empty nesters now; both kids are in college in different states, so we actually have a little more free time on the weekend. 

You’ve had quite a career before hitting 50. 

My wife tells people, “He keeps doing all these fantastic things, but it would be nice if he got a real job.” We will be married 25 years in September. She has tolerated lots of different things. The hard part with Homeland Security was that I would come home and I couldn’t tell her anything about what I did that day or what was going on. NASA was probably one of the more interesting jobs, obviously, with space flight. I still love space flight; I’m still involved with them from a research standpoint. I’ve had the privilege between LifeFlight, Homeland Security and NASA of being with some outstanding, exceptional teams that do some really high-reaching, outstanding things. Hopefully DMU will be the same. The students are above the national mean in scores, and as they graduate and take their exams, they’re above the national mean. The faculty have been top-notch. The fact that we have that kind of quality and value and that type of training here in Des Moines is amazing.