May 01, 2023

A Unique Admissions Program Creates an Opportunity for a Veteran to Become a Doctor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai

In 2017, the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai unveiled an admissions program that offers a specific pathway for United States military personnel. Last month, Dr. Christopher Bellaire, MD, a former Marine Lieutenant, received his medical degree as a member of the Class of 2023, making him the first person accepted through the program to complete his studies and graduate.

“I’m very grateful to Mount Sinai,” said Dr. Bellaire, who was also one of two recipients of this year’s Alumni Leadership Award, which the Mount Sinai Alumni Association presents each year to students or trainees who exhibit exemplary leadership in outstanding service to the Mount Sinai community. “The program really kept the door open to medicine and becoming a doctor that otherwise would have been shut.”

Mount Sinai’s admissions partnership with the U.S. military is open to all full-time, active-duty military personnel. Service members are eligible to apply if they have a baccalaureate degree from a U.S. or Canadian-accredited institution that is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. The arrangement is similar to Icahn Mount Sinai’s popular FlexMed program, which allows college sophomores to apply for early assurance of acceptance to medical school. Students accepted through both FlexMed and the new military program are not required to take the Medical College Acceptance Test (MCAT).

Dr. Bellaire said these programs demonstrate that Mount Sinai “values non-traditional applicants and people who bring different life experiences and backgrounds to medical education.”

There were 10 student veterans at Icahn Mount Sinai in the recently completed academic year. Two graduated this year, with four joining next year, bringing the total to 12. The program is affiliated with the U.S Department of Veteran Affairs’ Yellow Ribbon Program, which helps veterans pay tuition and fees that are not covered by the post-9/11 GI Bill.

A military background provides unique experience and perspective that directly parallels the practice of medicine. Like physicians, service members often have to work as a team in stressful situations that sometimes involve life-and-death decision-making. Their work also requires an understanding of how and when to approach others with empathy, compassion, and humility.

“Both are very hierarchical professions with very delineated paths in terms of rank structure, leadership, and working as part of a team to help others,” Dr. Bellaire said. “I think that there’s a lot of similarities and I don’t think that’s all happenstance. A lot of innovation in medicine has come due to casualties in war.”

As his graduation approached, Dr. Bellaire reflected a lot on the importance of Mount Sinai’s military partnership. Physicians who lack military experience often lack an understanding of the physical, mental, and environmental injuries associated with being in the service—factors that influence the health and well-being of veterans for the rest of their lives. Mount Sinai’s military admissions initiative is an effort to bridge that gap.

There are benefits to diversifying the physician ranks with former service members that go beyond direct patient care. Military veterans can also serve as advocates for not only the veteran population, but for people who have been displaced, marginalized, or traumatized as a result of war or conflict. Medical students admitted through Mount Sinai’s military admissions program—like Dr. Bellaire—are putting that advocacy into action, and that action is having a real-world impact.

“It’s a very special place, Mount Sinai,” Dr. Bellaire said. “I think a lot of places will advertise that they are interested in promoting a diverse class of students, and I think Sinai really backs it up. It’s become commonplace to see someone talk the talk, but Mount Sinai walks the walk and really puts some investment behind it, too.”

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A native of Atlanta, Dr. Bellaire made the decision to join the Marines as an undergraduate at Princeton University’s School of International and Public Affairs. One of his grandfathers had served in the Army during World War II, the other spent 40 years as a firefighter in Montana.

“On both sides of my family there was an emphasis on public service and giving back to a community and country that had given me so much,” he said. “I grew up in a family that really valued service and from an early age my parents instilled those values in me.”

9/11 happened when Dr. Bellaire was quite young; the surge in Afghanistan took place while he was at Princeton. Both moments had a profound impact on him. The image of firefighters racing bravely and fearlessly into the doomed Twin Towers put him in mind of his grandfather and what his grandfather might have done had he been in New York City on that fateful day. Similarly, as he observed men and women who were younger than he was thrusting themselves into the teeth of the Afghanistan surge, Dr. Bellaire became aware of his privilege—and his sense of duty. He also had friends who joined the ROTC.

“I saw the transformation that they had in terms of being in charge of 30 to 40 young men and women, traveling to dangerous places, and being at that point of maxim friction in society where difficult decisions had to be made,” Dr. Bellaire said. “That’s really what attracted me to medicine as well. There were going to be difficult, hard things that needed to be done. I wanted there to be good people in those positions. If I was going to ask someone else to do that, I wanted to volunteer myself to do the same.”

Dr. Bellaire spent four years as an intelligence officer in the Marine Corps, including deployments to Japan and the southern Philippines. He was stationed in the southern Philippines in 2017 when an ISIS-aligned terrorist group attacked and took over the city of Marawi, killing hundreds of people and creating a humanitarian crisis that displaced approximately 300,000 others. Dr. Bellaire was part of the Special Operations task force that spearheaded the U.S. mission: to advise and assist host-nation partners on counterterrorism operations against the ISIS threat.

From this experience, he took to heart the human consequences of war and poverty and the disparities in global healthcare access. He enrolled in Columbia University’s post-baccalaureate pre-medical program, and after hearing Dr. David Muller, MD, Dean for Medical Education and the Marietta and Charles C. Morchand Chair in Medical Education at Icahn Mount Sinai describe the importance of a non-traditional path to a medical education in an interview on National Public Radio, he phoned Mount Sinai’s medical school to express interest. That call reached Dr. Muller, who told him about Mount Sinai’s military initiative.

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Dr. Bellaire intends to become an orthopedic surgeon, to care for patients of all sorts, but in particular veterans with musculoskeletal injuries, spinal cord injuries, extremity amputations, and patients who’ve experienced trauma. This summer, he will begin his residency in the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, DC, where he just moved with his wife, Genevieve, and their three-month-old son, Ryan.

During his time at Mount Sinai, Dr. Bellaire shifted his mindset from how he intends to shape his medical practice to help veterans to how he can help veterans help other veterans by becoming physicians. He began this advocacy by volunteering with the educational nonprofit Service to School to encourage veterans to pursue careers in medicine, and by working with the Pat Tillman Foundation, for which he had been a Tillman Scholar.

Dr. Bellaire also led student advocacy for the expansion of Icahn Mount Sinai’s Yellow Ribbon Program to all eligible student veterans, mentored active-duty service members who have been accepted to medical schools and post-baccalaureate premedical programs, and partnered with Students for Equal Opportunity in Medicine to increase diversity in recruiting student veterans.

He even collaborated with medical school faculty to create a nexus course that integrates veterans’ health into the pre-clinical curriculum.

“It’s a full legacy in that it’s been passed down to be taught,” Dr. Bellaire said. “Eventually I would like to share that with vets at other medical schools so they can teach their classmates and share that curriculum with other schools.”

Dr. Bellaire’s advocacy effort has had ripple effects. James Brooks, MD/MPH Candidate, Class of 2025, a rising third-year medical student also admitted through the program, started a student-run mental health clinic for refugees from Afghanistan after the fall of the Afghan government, which led to an influx of refugees in New York City. That program, which provides interpreters for language competencies and teaches and uses cognitive-based therapy to talk to patients who’ve experienced trauma or have been displaced from their home countries, has since expanded to include Ukrainian refugees.

“On an individual level, the admissions program is an amazing benefit for all of us hoping to leave active duty for a career in medicine that simplifies part of an otherwise complex transition into civilian life,” Brooks said. “However, after being at Mount Sinai for two years, I see the partnership more as a commitment, a pact that Mount Sinai offers to transitioning veterans with the understanding that we will seek leadership in medicine and find new ways to continue to serve.”

This and other efforts to find new ways to serve—to create a sense of purpose and mission and community—represents a great source of pride for Dr. Bellaire.

“There’s only so much one person can do in their career and practice, but if you teach someone to fish, and you actually have a generation of veterans in medicine, they can all kind of do likewise,” he said. “It’s an incredible honor now that I’m leaving to see them carry that forward.”

It is not lost on Dr. Bellaire that Mount Sinai’s military admissions program is what made it all possible.

“I feel so honored and humbled to be in a position to help other veterans and increase awareness about this really special program that changed my life,” Dr. Bellaire said. “Ever since I was accepted, I’ve felt like I hit the lotto and had the winning ticket. I want to be able to share that with others."

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