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Walter Reed’s Dynamic Duo Achieve Defense Health Agency Medical Milestone

28 August 2023

From Ricardo Reyes-Guevara

When you meet retired U.S. Navy Capt. (Dr.) Robert F. Browning and U.S. Navy Capt. (Dr.) Sean McKay, you quickly realize these two talented surgeons have a mutual admiration society, each capable of finishing the other’s sentences after having worked together for more than a decade.“Our friendship is built on trust and respect,” McKay shared -
When you meet retired U.S. Navy Capt. (Dr.) Robert F. Browning and U.S. Navy Capt. (Dr.) Sean McKay, you quickly realize these two talented surgeons have a mutual admiration society, each capable of finishing the other’s sentences after having worked together for more than a decade.

“Our friendship is built on trust and respect,” McKay shared - understanding that Browning maintains a low-profile despite being a renown military surgeon for whom Walter Reed’s Department of Interventional Pulmonology is honorably named.

Browning and McKay have partnered to advance medical care for warfighters and improve outcomes for patients by developing creative protocols to detect lung cancer during the earliest stages, exponentially increasingly the likelihood of saving a patient’s life.

First Robotic-Assisted Bronchoscopy Within the Defense Health Agency

The “Dynamic Duo” recently performed the first robotic-assisted bronchoscopy within the Defense Health Agency (DHA), pairing this state-of-the-art device with a cone beam computer tomography scan to reach and biopsy a small nodule within the patient’s lung cavity. This highly nuanced two-hour procedure successfully detected cancerous cells in the first patient to undergo the DHA procedure, paving the way for a more aggressive plan of action to halt the spread of cancer.

“This is so exciting that we have this new capability to provide our patients in the Department of Defense,” emphasized Browning. “They deserve the best and now we can give it to them.”

Browning and McKay believe that minimally invasive biopsies, like the recently performed robotic bronchoscopies, may potentially prevent unnecessary lung surgeries, and diagnose actual lung cancers earlier – “when they are still curable,” explained McKay, whose mother encouraged him to pursue a medical career from his toddler days – putting him to bed each night whispering “you’re going to be a doctor.”

Cancer Touches Us All

“Unfortunately, my mother was diagnosed with an advanced stage of small cell lung cancer in the third year of my pulmonary/critical care fellowship,” McKay shared. He invested many hours researching and consulting with the best oncologists at the National Naval Medical Center to prepare a plan of action to advise his mother of her best options.

“My mother was a brilliant person, and fortunately she lived another two years after her initial diagnosis,” confided McKay. “Her journey motivated me to work in the field of lung cancer so that I could empathetically connect with others and empower patients and their families to make informed medical decisions.”

McKay, a native of Chicago, graduated from the University of Chicago with a degree in chemistry before earning his medical degree in 2001, and completing his residency in Internal Medicine at the at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco.

“During my residency, I decided to join the Naval Reserves and I quickly adapted to rigor, rhythm and joy of military service,” exclaimed McKay. During his career, McKay served as the medical director of the Department of Intensive Care at Naval Hospital Camp Lejeune (NHCL) before transitioning in 2012 to Walter Reed, his current assignment.

Passionate Pursuits Beyond the Operating Room

What you may not know is that McKay has received commendations from the Navy and Army – in addition to earning a NATO Metal Expert 9mm Pistol Medal. He’s got a kind of below the radar swagger that belies his business-day focus.
When he’s not preparing for surgery, McKay gears up to race high performance BMWs, routinely challenging more experienced drivers as he competes on the BMW CCA Club Racing circuit. “It’s a passion I’ve enjoyed since 2009,” explained McKay, who purchased his BMW after successfully completing his fellowship in pulmonary intervention.
“I enjoy the comradery and being part of a team, challenging myself to reach new milestones,” McKay shared.

While some surgeons enjoy golf, or sailing, others are cut from a different cloth acknowledged Browning, who says his career trajectory took a decidedly different path.

After majoring in psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Browning took an unexpected detour. “The Navy, it’s not just a job – it’s an adventure” recruiting campaign was a call to action for Browning to join the ranks of the Navy’s elite helicopter command.

“I flew in the first Gulf War, supplying ships with food and ammunition,” Browning reminisced. “We also had a tactical role supporting the Navy Seals stationed in Norfolk, Virginia.”

While flying on drug interdiction missions in the Caribbean and Columbia, Browning met a flight physician who encouraged him to think about applying to medical school. Although Browning had not pursued a pre-med course of study as an undergraduate, he went back to school to fulfill those scientific requirements before applying to the Uniformed Services University School of Medicine.

During medical school, Browning found that his pilot training had honed his understanding of mechanical processes and bolstered his confidence in adjusting to unforeseen challenges – which are all too common in the practice of medicine.

“Flying and performing advanced procedures – like a bronchoscopy - are very similar,” Browning explained. “Mastering technical skills and understanding complex spatial relationships are essential to both professions.”

Although Browning no longer flies helicopters, he does experience an aviator’s state of mind when robotically navigating the airways of a patient’s lungs because he knows better than most that pilots – like physicians – have a sacred responsibility to save lives.

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