From the Navy to Urology – Dr. Kathleen Sterling Shares Her Story
A close-knit family, a sense of tradition, a love of science, and a national crisis are all factors that contributed to Kathleen Sterling, M.D. finding her way into the offices of Urological Consultants, P.A., a Division of Tennessee Urology.
Growing up in Greenville, SC, she played the piano and swam freestyle on her local team–both activities that helped her develop discipline and a sense of accomplishment as she learned a new piece or set another personal best time in the water.
Dr. Sterling’s most distinct memories from childhood surround her family. Her mother was a teacher who also worked for the county school system. Her dad worked in IT….all different facets of computers as she was growing up. She has a younger sister, and while one set of grandparents lived nearby, her other grandparents were close enough to spend weekends in North Carolina.
“I can’t think of any particular moments that affected me when I was young. What stands out are the times spent with my family. My parents were always very present for me. We spent a lot of time together just as a nuclear family, as well as with relatives. It was a very family-based childhood.”
Another aspect of her family influenced Dr. Sterling– the tradition of joining the military. She applied for a Navy ROTC scholarship to Vanderbilt, and that came through. While that kind of commitment might seem like a major life decision for some, for this high school senior, it just seemed the natural path for her to take.
“My father went to the Air Force Academy, served a couple of years and then went into the private sector. I also had other family members – my grandfather and my great-grandfather – who served in the military for a few years before moving on to do other things.
‘It was the general idea of being in the military I thought was admirable. It wasn’t something any of them talked about a lot, it was just something they had done, so I did it too.”
Despite the fact biology was her favorite subject in high school, she decided to major in civil engineering at Vanderbilt. “I liked the idea of creating something, building something, so I chose civil engineering.”
Dr. Sterling realized quickly, however, that might not have been the best choice. “To be honest, I wasn’t crazy about it, but I needed to finish in four years because when you’re on an ROTC scholarship, they really want you to wrap it up on time. Besides I was so excited about my job after I finished college, it didn’t actually matter what I majored in, because I was going into the Navy.
“The Navy doesn’t care what your major is. When you enter the Navy, they decide the job you will have and send you off for the training you need.”
Following graduation and after six-months of additional schooling in Newport, RI, Sterling’s assignment on board the guided-missile cruiser, the USS Normandy was as a damage control assistant. She was responsible for coordinating the training for shipboard fires, disasters, and casualty management. Then all of a sudden, it wasn’t just a drill.
“We were training to go out on deployment in three to four months. Then 9/11 occurred and the word came down; we had to get ready to leave in three to four weeks. So we expedited our preparations and we went.
“Instead of just preparation and drills, we had to be certain of every scenario because we could actually be part of a sinking ship or a ship that was hit by a missile.”
Dr. Sterling also found herself on watch duty. “Each of the officers took turns standing watch on the bridge. We were on for five hours then off for ten, but during that 10 hours we had to oversee our division, do our administrative work, and sleep.”
Just as quickly as it started, the deployment ended. Dr. Sterling found herself back home six months later.
Then it was off for additional training and an assignment on the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, the USS Harry S. Truman. Her new assignment was actually as part of an air wing rather than the ship’s crew. She now planned missile strikes for ship-to-land air strikes.
In her years of service, she achieved the rank of O3, Lieutenant. “When I look back now I can’t believe I was doing that just out of college. I was in charge of a division of people, coming out not knowing anything about firefighting, welding, engineering, or driving a ship, but you train and when something happens, you step up and the training kicks in. You have a lot of support around you, and at the time I felt like I could do anything.
“There were definitely some hard parts, but I definitely had more fun and good memories than bad ones. What I enjoyed most was just working with a team of people to accomplish a common goal.”
Like her father and grandfather before her, however, Sterling knew the Navy was not where she wanted to spend her life. She had met the man she was going to marry, Josh Sterling, while still in college.
“Josh had been the most patient person in the world waiting for me to get through with the Navy commitment. So I knew my next step was not going to involve deployment. It was not going to involve any further military service.”
“Josh was a year ahead of me in college so he had to choose a law school before I went to the Navy. I knew I would have a choice between East Coast and West Coast service. We decided I would go for the East Coast, and he would stick to East Coast law schools. He went to the University of Pennsylvania and I ended up in Norfolk, Virginia. That was pretty workable. Each step we just got closer and closer to each other. He had his first job in DC which is closer to Norfolk, then we were finally together in the same place when I got out.
Having chosen an area of the country to settle, Kathleen Sterling had to make a decision about what to do with the rest of her life. She remembered her youthful love of biology, a biology survey course she enjoyed in college, and volunteering at a hospital near her naval base that just felt right.
“It wasn’t an overnight decision; I’d sort of been building up to it and thinking about– if I did it, what did I want to do?” A couple of public health courses convinced her she would want more direct patient contact than that field would provide.
She told her fiancé she wanted to go to medical school. “He thought I was crazy,” she laughs. But once again he supported her choice. Kathleen and Josh were married a couple months after her deployment ended, and she then spent a couple years as a research assistant in HIV-associated nephropathy in pediatric patients at the National Children’s Medical Center in Washington, DC…while taking the upper-level science courses she needed for med school.
Then came medical school at the University of Maryland and once again, Dr. Sterling found her way to the right path for her. “During the third year, every student did rotations through different specialty areas. I had a few weeks on the urology service and realized how happy urologists seemed to be. They were very impressive people who got to do a mixture of procedures and work in an office type setting. I realized that was what I wanted.”
Dr. Sterling acknowledges that while being a physician is a far cry from her civil engineering degree and her stint in the Navy, that background had a definite impact in preparing her for her career in medicine.
“First of all in the Navy, there are plenty of times I think back about how I was shivering on the bridge in the middle of the night, drinking cups of coffee just to keep things running…it was great preparation for residency.”
Urology’s attraction also aligned with her engineering background– in a way.
“It just made sense to me. The urinary tract works mechanically and structurally – so maybe that’s sort of my engineering background. It seems a lot of urologic problems are structural issues, like when somebody has a big prostate and can’t urinate. Okay, I need to relieve the obstruction and then they can. Somebody has a kidney stone blocking the flow of the urine and causing infection and pain. Get rid of it. Problem solved. A lot of urology is pretty immediately gratifying.”
But Dr. Sterling also appreciates being able to care for patients over a longer period of time, such as those with chronic conditions or cancer, who need long-term help.
During her training, Dr. Sterling wasn’t truly aware of just how fortunate she was. “I’ve learned some medical schools don’t even have a urology rotation. Having started medical school without being aware of the specialty, I’m thankful it was something I was exposed to. I feel I lucked into this. It’s absolutely where I belong.”
During her final year of residency, Josh and Kathleen added to their family with the birth of daughter Caroline. And when she finished residency, Kathleen joined Urological Consultants, P.A., and added another daughter Kira. Today, although she has started to run and swim again, a lot of her out-of-office time encompasses activity in a nearby park with her family, just as it did when she was a girl.
She doesn’t dwell on it, but Dr. Sterling knows her time in the Navy impacted her future.”I had a decent head on my shoulders going in, but assuming that amount of responsibility at such a young age is an opportunity I wouldn’t have had on a lot of other career paths. I can’t imagine how things would have taken a different course if I hadn’t done that.
“When I went to medical school, I was glad I hadn’t gone straight out of college. My time in the Navy made it easier to focus. I felt much more driven and able to buckle down and study.”
Dr. Sterling knows she still faces professional challenges and anticipates that lessons she learned in the Navy will help.
“I learned to expect the best, but be prepared for the worst. Consider every possibility and always have back-up plans.
“It’s a challenge every day to make sure to see each patient as an individual. On paper, their problem might be the same as the one you just saw, or the same problem you saw several times that day, but you have to take the specific situation into account when coming up with a treatment plan.
“I would say I take the most pleasure when a patient says ‘thank you, you’ve really helped me.’”