Gregory McDonald, DO ’89, is well known around campus. He currently serves as the Dean of the School of Health Sciences and lectures extensively to doctor of osteopathic medicine (DO), physician assistant (PA) and forensic medicine students and provides residents and attending physicians with continuing education programs. In addition to his work at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine (PCOM), Dr. McDonald serves as the chief deputy coroner of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. We sat down with Dr. McDonald to learn more about his journey to becoming dean, as well as his hobbies beyond the worlds of medicine and forensics.
I think the School of Health Sciences will play a large role in the greater realm of PCOM. It's going to contribute to, what I envision being, more of a university model as opposed to the traditional medical school model. The osteopathic program is our flagship and that's never going to change; that's always going to be the major focus of many of our endeavors. But we have to start thinking across different disciplines and the School of Health Sciences is certainly going to allow that to happen.
The School of Health Sciences will contribute to other medically related fields—PA studies, physical therapy, forensic medicine and biomedical sciences—but I also see us diving into other potentially related fields, maybe doctors of education or medical education degree tracks. We are already delving into non-medical fields, but in an overall context of medicine and biology.
Ever since I was a little kid, I liked science and wanted to understand how biological things worked. In fact, early on, I got a toy called the ”visible man” which was a model of a see-through man with all the organs exposed. I remember that was one of my favorite toys. I wanted to see what happens in the human body and what drives the systems of the body.
Also, I was only 9 years old when my mom died of cancer. She was diagnosed in March and passed away in October. So, in a very quick time period, I saw her waste away. As a child I wondered, ”What is this thing called cancer?” My family is not a medical family so no one could explain it to me. This also helped drive my curiosity about why things go wrong. All these factors contributed greatly to me pursuing medicine.
The forensic path is an interesting field, in that you're at the end of someone's life and everything that could've gone wrong has gone wrong. Now you're working backwards to find out what happened. I am not the kind of doctor that enjoyed looking at X-rays or MRIs or CT scans. I’ve always wanted to see what went wrong for myself—whether looking with my naked eye or through a microscope. Pathology allows you do that.
Additionally, forensics often deals with violent deaths and I was always interested in law enforcement and detective work. I wanted to know, if you find someone who's dead, how do you determine the cause of death? How do you know if they were strangled or shot? How do you know which wound is the entrance wound and which wound is the exit wound? How do you recreate what happened? For me, forensics marries my two interests in medicine and law enforcement.
I'm lucky in that, I have really great people working with me and I let them go through their paces without micromanaging. I listen to learn what challenges they may be facing, what institutional issues may arise, and what I can do to help them succeed in their mission. I've been here a long time—I was a student here myself—so I think I can help in that regard.
I am constantly reading medical books—pathology textbooks, forensic pathology textbooks and articles—but aside from those, I just read a book called ”Pandemic 1918” by Catharine Arnold. It is about the influenza pandemic of 1918 that took the lives of millions of people (between 50-100 million) and had a severe impact here in Philadelphia. They were piling bodies up on the street. They didn't even have enough wood for coffins. So, even though I’ve lived in Philadelphia my entire life, I was never quite aware of that.
Another book I read recently was ”The Butchering Art” by Lindsey Fitzharris, which talked about the early days of anatomy, surgery and the challenges that arose pre-anesthesia. It's funny—some of the names in the book are names that I often use in lectures; many syndromes and triads were named after these physicians. A lot of these discoveries also occurred in and around Philadelphia, specifically at Penn and Jefferson in the early days.
I've received a great deal of advice over the years, from various different people, but my mom gave me the best piece of advice when I was young. She said, ”Greg, you're going to do fine. You just have to believe in yourself and do what you think is right, and everything will work out.” And though it's broad, it has stuck with me, lived in my psyche and given me self-confidence. When I have come to a point in my life where there's a question, I think back to that and it helps [with my decision].
While I don't have much spare time these days, I do like to spend time with my son and train in the martial arts. I started wrestling in high school, I did karate in college, followed by judo, Brazilian ju-jitsu and now I'm currently training for my black belt in an Israeli martial art called krav maga. I'm hoping to achieve that in the next year.
I don't know if this is something I should share, but I will. Both of my grandfathers were in Eastern State Penitentiary with Al Capone: one as a guard and one as a prisoner.
Getting this dean position is my most recent proud moment, but one moment that really changed my life and opened up a lot of doors for me, both academically and professionally, was when I passed my boards. I spent years of my life studying for one exam, the most challenging exam I've ever had. Luckily, I passed the first time. It was self-directed study and it took a lot of sacrifice during a time when I also had a newborn child.
I think my favorite part is dealing with so many intelligent people. We are surrounded by brilliant minds here on campus. From students, to faculty, to support staff, they all come from different strengths and backgrounds. Some people on campus are more research-oriented, some are more patient-oriented, and in addition to that, we have such a diverse student background. Just being exposed to all these different people in such a concentrated environment makes it so much fun to come to work.
Founded in 1899, Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine has trained thousands of highly competent, caring physicians, health practitioners and behavioral scientists who practice a “whole person” approach to care—treating people, not just symptoms. PCOM offers doctoral degrees in clinical psychology, osteopathic medicine, pharmacy, physical therapy and school psychology, and graduate degrees in biomedical sciences, forensic medicine, mental health counseling, organizational development and leadership, physician assistant studies, school psychology, and public health management and administration. Our students learn the importance of health promotion, research, education and service to the community. Through its community-based Healthcare Centers, PCOM provides care to medically underserved populations in inner city and rural locations. For more information, visit pcom.edu.
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