Physician with a mission: Nystrom serving as doctor to elite U.S. Navy SEALs

WORTHINGTON -- When he was growing up on a farm south of Worthington, Paul Nystrom had a couple of aspirations. First of all, he knew that some day he would become a medical doctor.

WORTHINGTON -- When he was growing up on a farm south of Worthington, Paul Nystrom had a couple of aspirations. First of all, he knew that some day he would become a medical doctor.

"Ever since I was little, I knew I wanted to be a doctor," he asserted.

But like many young guys, Paul also yearned to live a life of adventure -- perhaps as a member of the elite U.S. Navy SEALs?

"I had always been interested in the Navy, probably because of the SEALs," he reflected. "It's every kid's dream to be a SEAL, so that was always in the back of my head."

SEALs are maritime special forces that strike from and return to the sea. SEALs (sea, air, land) take their name from the elements in and from which they operate.


Now, Paul is living out his dreams as a medical doctor to the SEALS at Naval Amphibious Base, Coronado, Calif. He's not actually a SEAL himself, but is a Navy medical officer, commissioned as a lieutenant, who provides for the medical needs of the SEALs and associated personnel.

"I take care of the West Coast SEAL teams, the odd-numbered SEAL teams," he explained during a recent telephone interview. "They're part of who I take care of, but also the logistics people and support people and training people. It's not just SEALs coming in, but regular Joes who work with communications, logistics."

The son of Lowell and Ruth Nystrom of rural Worthington, Paul graduated in 1995 from Worthington High School.

"I did the post-secondary option in high school, so I graduated in 1996 with a two-year degree from the community college (Minnesota West Community and Technical College, Worthington campus)," he said.

Paul attended the University of Minnesota for his undergraduate work, and then it was on to the University of Iowa Medical School. Paul said the idea of joining the Navy was always in the back of his mind.

"I graduated from college and went to medical school. After 9-11 happened, that encouraged me to think about joining again," he remembered. "(The Navy) paid for three years of medical school -- I already had one year in, then I got the (Navy) scholarship after the first year, and they paid for the last three years, for three years of service."

Paul completed his medical internship at the Navy Medical Center in Portsmouth, Va., but he has yet to serve a residency -- that will wait until he fulfills his military obligation.

"The Navy's a little bit different than other armed forces," he explained. "A good portion of the doctors that take care of the fleet, like I do or onboard a ship, only have internship training. They're not board certified or anything. This doesn't count as an official training program, so I'll have to go back and do my residency in a couple of years."


Most of the Navy's medical officers are assigned to serve onboard ships.

"The default pathway is to do a GMO tour -- general medical officer," Paul explained about the medical options in the Navy. "That's what most of the guys on ships are, that's the majority, or you can apply to do flight surgery, work with pilots, or as an undersea medical officer -- UMO."

But Paul's path took a different course when he was accepted into the dive medicine program.

"After my internship, I knew I wanted to do dive medicine after talking to a guy who had done what I'd done." Paul related. "My training is not anywhere close to actual SEAL training. That's a totally different career path. My training was med school, internship, then six more months of training -- learning about diving operations, submarine stuff, the radiation health that goes along with submarines because they are all nuclear-powered. Twelve of us went through the training in Groton, Conn., and Panama City, Fla. You all go through all the training, and some of us will use one part, and some another part depending on what we are assigned to do."

In addition to the radiation health, Paul also learned about diving dangers and casualties --hyperbaric medicine -- including decompression sickness, which occurs when a diver surfaces too quickly. Paul himself has a little SCUBA experience, but only as a civilian.

"When I met my wife, she had done some SCUBA diving, civilian SCUBA, so I started a little bit when we first started dating," Paul said. "I haven't yet, but I may get involved in more of the diving stuff."

After finishing his dive medicine training, Paul wasn't sure where he'd end up and was pleasantly surprised to be assigned to work with the SEALs, fulfilling his long-ago aspirations if in a somewhat modified capacity. He reported for duty in California in early January and has now established a daily routine.

"The first part of my day is working out, so that's not bad at all," he detailed. "In the CO (commissioned officer) community, the guys are in good shape. Then I see patients usually for the majority of the morning. Some are just scheduled primary care-type patients who may have high blood pressure, high cholesterol or orthopedic stuff. I'm around, too, for a lot of the enlisted guys that you see in sick call. They may have a common cold, or if there's something more complicated, I'm around to answer questions about whatever comes up.


"Another big part of the job is dive physicals. Every five years, all the guys have to have a repeat physical, and even before they get out, they have to have a physical."

Paul's job also entails administrative duties.

"I'm still learning that part of it," he said. "My assignment is overlapping with a guy who's leaving -- going back to residency -- and I'm still learning the administrative responsibilities that he does."

Paul and his wife, Alana, will be married four years in June, and they have a 15-month-old son, Kade, and a baby on the way, due in June. With Paul's current schedule, he goes to work by 6:30 or 7 a.m. and is home by 4, allowing him plenty of time to spend with his family. It's a routine the Nystroms look forward to keeping for a while.

"My orders are for three years, and it will all be here," Paul said. "I may be out of here in like two and a half years, depending on when I go back to residency. Residencies usually start in July."

When that does happen, Paul knows what specialty he will pursue, and his schedule is apt to become much more demanding.

"I want to do emergency medicine," he stated, adding that his current assignment will provide a good background for that future vocation. "Not in terms of trauma and the real exciting stuff, but it is good training for a lot of the primary care stuff. Unfortunately, a lot of people use the ER for their primary care."

At this point, Paul doesn't know whether he'll do his residency as a Navy officer or as a civilian. He'll decide that down the road.


"It's been good. I don't know if we'll stay in after my time is up here or not. There are a lot of things to consider," he said. "It's a good life, and the possibilities are there. The world's always going to need doctors, and the Navy, certainly, has been good for us."

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