As a soldier in Iraq, Dr. Catherine Mary “Katie” Cook encountered death and oversaw the respectful handling of the remains of the fallen. It stuck with her, and it was her dignified treatment of dying patients that helped her earn the top award for compassionate care from Georgia Health Sciences University during graduation Friday.
“I’m very humbled,” she said, visibly stunned that she had won the $25,000 award. “I don’t feel I’m deserving,”
Those who nominated her clearly did. Cook was in the Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned her undergraduate degree in chemical engineering. She was deployed to Iraq in December 2002 and served in a combat support medical company, where she earned a Bronze Star, according to her nominating letter from Dr. Kathleen T. McKie, of GHSU.
“I didn’t know anything about medicine, but I was in charge of those great soldiers,” Cook said. “It was my experiences there that really opened my eyes to medicine, and I just couldn’t think of a better way to spend my day than as a health care provider.”
When she came back, she set her sights on medical school.
She was dubbed “Capt. Cook” by Surgical Critical Care fellow Steven B. Holsten for her maturity, although she really did hold the rank of captain in the Army. Cook quickly impressed him and others with her compassionate care during a surgery clerkship at the Charlie Norwood Veterans Affairs Medical Center and during a rotation in the Intensive Care Unit at Medical College of Georgia Hospital.
It is easy for Cook to empathize with patients at the VA.
“I’m also a patient at the VA,” she said. “I’m able to seek my medical care there as well. I enjoy talking with those soldiers, with those veterans.”
In particular, Holsten cited her care for a patient with terminal ovarian cancer who was no longer responsive and suffering from a severe infection. Cook not only strove to maintain the patient’s dignity but tended to the emotional needs of the patient’s family, Holsten wrote in a nominating letter.
“She was a key player in providing compassionate care in a setting that can be stale and clinical, and I admire her for that,” he wrote.
In Iraq, Cook was primarily a supervisor at a field hospital, not in a clinical role, but she was still exposed to everything, including death.
“I don’t think you’re ever prepared for the first time you see that,” Cook said. “I won’t forget the first time that happened, and that was in Iraq. It was both Americans and Iraqi. We handled their remains.”
She now embarks on a career as a physician but with her time as a solider still serving her well.