Season 4 - Episode 432
Few professors have a resume quite like that of Dr. Sparky Matthews, clinical professor in Baylor’s Honors Program. Dr. Matthews is a retired Air Force flight surgeon who served as the first surgeon general of the United States Space Force. In this Baylor Connections, he shares how a Baylor mentor shaped his career journey and how returning to teach at his alma mater represents a personal mission.
Derek Smith:Hello, and welcome to Baylor Connections, a conversation series with the people shaping our future. Each week, we go in depth with Baylor leaders, professors and more, discussing important topics in higher education, research and student life. I'm Derek Smith and our guest today is Dr. Sparky Matthews. Few professors have a resume yet quite like that of Dr. Matthews, clinical professor in Baylor's honors program. Dr. Matthews is a former Air Force flight surgeon, hospital Commander on the war front in Afghanistan, recipient of the Bronze Star and the first Surgeon General of the United States Space Force. A 1992 Baylor graduate, Dr. Matthew's career path was deeply impacted by his mentor, legendary Baylor biology professor, Bill Hillis. After retiring from the Air Force, he returned to his Alma Mater to join the Baylor faculty last year and he's with us today here on Baylor connections. Dr. Matthews, it's great to have you on the program. And I know everyone calls you Sparky, so welcome to the program, Sparky.
Sparky Matthews:Thank you so much, Derek. I appreciate it.
Derek Smith:Well, it's great to have you here and I want to ask you about the nickname. But I want to actually start, I gave a very brief rundown of your career. Could you give us a little better insight into your path from Baylor to Baylor, essentially. From being-
Derek Smith:A Baylor student and coming back here and all in between.
Sparky Matthews:Absolutely. I grew up in Round Rock, so I'm kind of a hometown boy and somebody asked me why did I choose Baylor? I couldn't tell you why I chose Baylor as an undergraduate. It was just the place that I was destined to be. And so I came here as an undergraduate, as a pre-med student, went through my entire career and had Dr. Bill Hillis as one of my professors, spring of my senior year. And Dr. Hillis had an unimaginable impact on me, and I'll explain that later on as we go through this. But he essentially led me into the Air Force, introduced me to that world. And I joined the Air Force, planned to stay for four years, do my payback, and then get out and practice some type of civilian medicine. But once I got into that world and discovered the world of aerospace medicine, being a flight surgeon, I found that it was the most fun I could possibly have. And so I decided to stick around for a couple more years. And 28 years later, I finished my career in the Space Force and then came back to Baylor, which had been my dream since before I graduated from Baylor University as an undergraduate, to come back and teach. Essentially, to be Bill Hillis to a new generation of students.
Derek Smith:Well, that's great. Well, you're getting the opportunity to then. Of course, you came in at quite a time and right in the middle of a pandemic. So you're getting to have a impact even beyond what you might've imagined, certainly with your background in medicine and government and all you've done, because we're going to dive into that. But I want to ask you first, obviously you're Dr. Matthews, you're in the Air Force, but everyone calls you Sparky.
Derek Smith:Where did that come from?
Sparky Matthews:Well, I'll tell you what. My parents were not mean enough to actually name me Sparky. That's not on my birth certificate. So you never get a nickname in the Air Force for doing something cool. It's always for doing something a little bit boneheaded, and this is no exception. So long story short, I was a part of a mass casualty exercise my very first week as a flight surgeon. And that name came about from a misstep that I made with a simulated live power line, that ended up with me strapped to a litter and carried into the clinic building. For weeks after that, people called me Sparky and I hated it. And I tried to scrape it off and the harder I scraped, the harder it stuck. So really, it's my personality and so I finally just had to embrace it.
Derek Smith:You had to embrace it. Now, of course, now I'm asking you this, but no one would know otherwise.
Sparky Matthews:No, that's right. That's right.
Derek Smith:No one would know otherwise. Well, you mentioned that you came to Baylor, you were a pre-med student. How early was medicine something that you knew you wanted to pursue?
Sparky Matthews:So Derek, I'll tell you that I never remember a time that I didn't want to be a doctor, ever since I can remember wanting to be anything. Some people wouldn't. Some of my friends wanted to be astronauts, baseball players, firemen, whatever. I always wanted to be a doctor. I couldn't tell you why. I think that's pretty common for people that are called to medicine, called to be a physician. You never really know why, you just know that you won't be happy doing anything else. And so I pursued that all the way through high school education, came to Baylor, knew that it was a great pre-med school. And so that's how I ended up here, but I never remember wanting to do anything else.
Derek Smith:Talking with Dr. Sparky Matthews. And of course, you mentioned to Bill Hillis and you had him second semester of your senior year, right?
Derek Smith:So that's a pretty key time for most undergraduates past and present. And tell us a little bit about that relationship, because when I asked you about wanting to go into medicine, you didn't mention wanting to go in the Air Force for young age. So obviously, that coalesced somewhere along the way.
Sparky Matthews:Sure. So, Dr. Hillis, I took his immunology course that spring, and I did that because I wanted to prepare for medical school. I had just been accepted to med school when that semester started. And he was this larger than life person at Baylor. Anyone that was in school here at the time remembers who Dr. Hillis was.
Derek Smith:We throw out the words legendary a little too freely, but he's legendary.
Sparky Matthews:He is legendary. And he had been the vice president of student affairs. The only time that I had interaction with him prior to that is I was a member of the Baylor EMS. I was a medic and we responded to a call at Patton F hall. And we go up to the second floor where his office was. It was a secretary that was having some heart palpitations. And he walked over and asked for the stethoscope from one of the paramedics. And I thought, who is this person? Who does he think he is? I mean, just because he's a vice president or professor doesn't mean that he knows anything about this. I had no idea that he was a physician. And so once I was educated about that later, I decided that's someone whose class I need to take, because I want to learn from a physician. If that's what I'm going to be, I want to see what that looks like. And early in that semester, he announced to the class that there were Army and Air Force medical recruiters on campus that day, and that's how he had gone through medical school with the Air Force. And that if we were interested, this is where we could go, this is the times that they would be there. Well, that went in one ear and out the other for me. And as I was walking out, he grabbed me by the shoulder and he said, "You really should go talk to the Air Force recruiter. I think flight medicine would be a great fit for you. That's something that I did. It's a lot of fun. And I just think that'd be a great fit for you." That was enough for me. And so I went and talked to the recruiter and the rest, as they say, is history.
Derek Smith:What do you think he saw in you? You said that was early in the semester as you're getting to know him?
Sparky Matthews:So Derek, I couldn't tell you. I have no idea what he saw in me. I became a lifelong friend of Bill Hillis, and I asked him many years later exactly that question. "What made you reach out and tell me to go talk to the recruiter?" And he said, "You know what? I couldn't tell you. It was the leading of the spirit." He said, "There's no other explanation I have, but God said, you need to tell that guy to go talk to the recruiter." And that was the beginning of a lifelong friendship, and he really set the course of my life with a 20 second interaction. That's such a great lesson for all of us, that we have no idea the impact we can have on another person for just a small amount of interaction like that.
Derek Smith:Absolutely. So we visit with Dr. Sparky Matthews, clinical professor in Baylor's honors program, and of course, a long career in the Air Force and Space Force. Obviously, in that first 20 second interaction, it set the course for your life and sparked a lifelong friendship. Are there other aspects of his influence on you? Are there phrases that when you are overseas in Turkey or Afghanistan, that you could hear in his voice when you were in tough situations or just aspects that really had an impact on you?
Sparky Matthews:Sure. So, it's a little pedantic, but he was a nephrologist, so a physician for the kidney. And in class almost every day, he would find a way to say that the kidney is the most important organ in the human body. I cannot study or see anything about the kidney without hearing Bill Hillis, his voice telling me that. But more to the point of what you're saying, he frequently told us that his goal for us was not just to become physicians, but to become physicians that lead meaningful lives. He said, "Medicine is great, but medicine's not enough to have a meaningful life. You have to find the other things that give seasoning to your life." And anyone that knows Dr. Hillis will know he was a researcher, he was a phenomenal physician. He was an airman. He had a beautiful singing voice. He was well known to break out into song at a restaurant when he was sitting with friends. And so seeing that modeled in front of us, helped us know who we wanted to become. And in a mentoring relationship, we rarely look at someone and say, "I want to be like that person." We look at people that are the images of who we want to be and we say, "I want to be that person." And I decided that I wanted to be Bill Hillis. I wanted to be an airman, a flight surgeon, and ultimately wanted to come back to Baylor to teach. And that's why I'm back. I'm back because I want to be Bill Hillis for the students that are here at Baylor today.
Derek Smith:Well, that's great. And obviously, you've really been able to dive right into that in a number of ways. I'm going to ask you some questions. I want to ask you about the classes you teach and the topics. But before we get to that, let's talk about that path that he sent you on, Air Force medicine, air flight surgeon in the Air Force. How does that work exactly? Because you're really on two tracks, it seems like, when you are pursuing a career in that. Medicine, and then also the world of the Air Force. So take us inside that.
Sparky Matthews:Sure. So the way that most Air Force physicians end up in the Air Force is through what's called the Health Profession Scholarship Program or HPSP. And it's a traditional scholarship. You apply for it. Typically, if you have a high enough MCAT score, high enough GPA, you're going to get that scholarship. And it pays for all of medical school, anywhere you want to go. Pays you a stipend to live on while you're there. It's a great deal. And if anybody's interested in hearing more about that, they can come by my office. I'm happy to discuss that with them. But once you get into the Air Force as a physician, you train just like you go to medical school, like a civilian physician does. You do your residency and train just like everybody else. It's just because a body's in a uniform, doesn't mean it's not the same human body. So we've learned the same medicine, trained the same way. And then once you get out, your life as a physician is very similar to a civilian physician. The only difference is, you don't have to decide what to wear to work every day. But once you get there, you're taking care of patients the same way. The difference that I found is that the patients I took care of, I felt a bond to them that I imagine civilian physicians don't normally have with their patients, because when I take care of another airman, this is a comrade in arms. This is somebody that I go to war with, that I go downrange with. And when I take care of their families, I'm taking care of people that I have an unusual bond with, that most physicians don't have.
Derek Smith:As you're becoming credentialed as a doctor, in what ways do you become credentialed in a part of the Air Force family? What sort of, is there a dual track you have to take with that?
Sparky Matthews:So you'd go through officer training. It's a little bit different. It's an abbreviated officer training where you learn the basics of how to wear the uniform, all of those things. And then you go through medical school and you spend, you do one month a year doing a rotation in an Air Force hospital, which satisfies your reserve requirement while you're in medical school. And then you take the same exams to get licensed. You're typically licensed in the state where you go to medical school or your home state. And then when you do your residency training, they're certified by the American College of Graduate Medical Education, just like civilian residencies. And when you come out, the difference is when you come out, you have a guaranteed job. Not every physician has that, but you know you're going to be practicing somewhere. And then you go somewhere for a couple of years, you practice, and then you move to another place for a couple of years, you practice there. So, it's a way to practice medicine, to practice your art and to see the world at the same time.
Derek Smith:This is Baylor Connections. We are visiting with Dr. Sparky Matthews. And flight surgeon, that title, what does that entail? And you mentioned that a lot of what you do is very similar to a civilian physician, but you're treating people in some different kind of conditions, of extreme conditions. Could you give us a little bit of a picture of that?
Sparky Matthews:Sure. So aerospace medicine is a specialty, just like dermatology, pediatrics, general surgery, things like that. And so a flight surgeon doesn't necessarily have to have that residency training. So most of our flight surgeons in the Air Force, they complete their one year internship after medical school to get their license, to be a licensed physician. And then they go to the aerospace medicine primary course to get their wings. It's about eight weeks long. And then they're out practicing flight medicine at a base somewhere. And the best way to describe aerospace medicine as a discipline, every other discipline of medicine deals with abnormal physiology in a normal environment. And aerospace medicine is exactly the opposite. We primarily deal with normal physiology in an abnormal environment, the environment of air and space. So how does low temperature, low oxygen, vibration, high noise, task saturation, how do those things? Acceleration forces, pulling G's, how does that affect the normal body and what do we need to do to protect the normal body, so it can have maximum performance when it's in that environment? And so we do deal with illness and how illness is affected by that environment as well. But primarily, it's looking at not fixing broken engines, but tuning them up to be muscle cars. That's what aerospace medicine does.
Derek Smith:It's a lot of upstream or-
Derek Smith:Yes. What should those of us... Is there any one aspect that stands out to you as you're training people that probably most of us who aren't in that world wouldn't even think of?
Sparky Matthews:So flight surgeons have the absolute blessing of getting to fly. We fly in Air Force aircraft. In fact, you're required to fly four hours a month to keep your currency. And so I have flight time in 27 different airframes, everything from the KC-135 refueler to the C-130 air lifter to the F-16. And so that's the fun part of the job. And we do that to get involved in the pilot's world because the natural enemy of the pilot is the physician. And so being a part of their world, we dress like them. We work with them, we go to war with them. We live in the same neighborhoods, and so we become part of their family and that engenders trust with those individuals. But the other things flight surgeons do is every, all the medicine that happens outside of the hospital or the clinic building is what flight surgeons do. Public health, industrial hygiene, and bio environmental engineering. Anything that can touch a pilot or the world that they fly in is what we wrap our arms around. So we do sanitation visits to the barbershop, to Burger King on base. We do the occupational medicine for the folks that work on their ejection seats, that paint their aircraft. Anything that can touch the pilot, that's what we do.
Derek Smith:Wow. So a lot more than, a lot of outside the office or the operating room, if you will. You mentioned that you were in combat with them. Could you take it, tell us where this job took you and maybe not certainly countries or different places, but also environments or situations.
Sparky Matthews:Honestly, most of the time in the Air Force I spent in Texas, but we've lived in Washington State, Washington, DC, New Mexico. But we also were stationed in Turkey overseas for two years, and we were there when the second Gulf War kicked off. So my family, my wife and two daughters were actually evacuated back to the United States as refugees. Hard to believe I've got refugees in my family, but that is the case. But in addition to that, during deployments, I've been to Afghanistan, to Iraq, was deployed to Cutter. And those environments are very different. Very different, but some the same as well, because you're going with people that you know. You're taking care of people that have the illnesses that they have at home. But at the same time, you're receiving mortars and rockets fired on the base, sometimes 100 feet away from where you're sleeping. If you have a mission that takes you outside the wire, outside the base, out into the actual country. When I was in Iraq, I flew a casualty evacuation with the army as part of my duties there. So we were an air ambulance to go pick up people that had been in a column that hit an IED or that was engaged in with troops in contact. Excuse me. And when somebody fires their weapon at you and with hatred in their heart, that makes you, that has a way of clarifying things in your life. I remember once, I was on the tarmac in Iraq. We were loading an Air Evac mission that was about to take off. It's about 5:30 in the morning, sun was coming up. It was really cold outside and mortars start landing around us on the tarmac. So we pick up this special forces patient that was on a litter, with the equipment that was on the litter was about 600 pounds. And so we carried that off into an overturned culvert, which was our bomb shelter. And I'm squeezing what's called an Ambu bag that's ventilating the patient, while we're waiting to get the all clear to go back to the aircraft. And I look across at my friend that is helping me with this patient and I look at him and I said, "What happened to me? Where was that left turn at Albuquerque that brought me to the place where I am bagging a patient on the tarmac in Iraq with mortars falling around me?" It was something that I never envisioned happening. I mean, that no person in undergraduate ever thinks that they're going to be in a place like that. But it was a unique opportunity to take care of some of the most amazing heroes that have ever lived in this country and making sure that they got back home safe, when I was in Afghanistan. And the opportunity to command all of the surgical forces in Afghanistan while I was there, in addition to being the role three hospital commander. And shortly after I got there, it was Father's Day. We had a mass casualty. We had six different patients come in, both Afghan and American the night before. And we flew them out to Germany that next morning. The Afghans went to an Afghan hospital in country, but the Americans went out to Germany. And I remember thinking that I got the opportunity to give six fathers back to their families that day for Father's Day. So I didn't get to be with my own family, but I got to make sure that other families got their fathers back. And so a lot of sacrifices involved in moving around to different environments in the military, but it's something that I look back and I wouldn't change a single thing, that I had the opportunity to do during that 28 years.
Derek Smith:How much, even as you're retired now, do you find yourself thinking back to those moments or even talking to people who you shared that with? I imagine there's some lifelong bonds that formed through that.
Sparky Matthews:There are. It's a strange thing, that you don't form real deep friendships when you're in the military because you're moving around so often. And I certainly do have some of those, but not like some people would think. But honestly, Derek, when I look back now, I think back on that chapter in my life, which is essentially most of my life and I don't miss it. It was wonderful. It was a great opportunity to be able to serve, but I'm doing something so much fun now and what I consider to be so important, that I wouldn't go back. I wouldn't go back if I had the chance, just because what I'm doing now is the achievement of a lifelong dream.
Derek Smith:That's great. That's a great thing to be able to say, for sure. One intermittent step in there, a pretty big one too, was you became the first Surgeon General of the US Space Force. Could you give us, before we talk about that, a little bit of a Space Force one-on-one to kind of understand where it fits in the US defense system?
Sparky Matthews:Sure. And that's a great question and that's something that not a lot of people understand. The best way to describe that is in the, we talk about domains of warfare in the Department of Defense and that's air, land, sea, space and cyberspace. And so air is obviously the Air Force, regardless of what the Navy says. Air is the Air Force. Sea is the Navy and the Marines. Land is the Army and the Marines as well. But we really haven't had a whole lot of... We weren't giving the space domain of warfare the recognition and the attention that it deserved. We had Air Force Space Command, which was a part of the Air Force. And that's actually where my original assignment was to. I was the Command Surgeon for Air Force Space Command. But President Trump decided that, you know what, we need to put a little bit more focus on space than we have in the past, because that's where not only we want to go, but that's where our adversaries were already going. Russia and China being the primary. And so he stood up the Space Force while I was there. Now, as I was driving from Abilene, Texas up to Colorado Springs to take that job as the Command Surgeon for Air Force Space Command, in the car, I heard President Trump's speech about Space Force. And I realized this just became a whole new world and my job was going to get a lot bigger as we went forward. But Space Force, if you think about the Air Force, the Navy, the Army, the Marines, everything that is on this earth is managed and is protected by those forces. Everything that's not on that earth from 100 miles up out to the edge of the universe is the purview of the Space Force. Now that sounds like a really big area of operations, and it certainly is. And right now, we're really focused on missiles and satellites, which has traditionally been what we've done in space. NASA has been the space exploration bureau. But if you think back to exploration on earth, back when Columbus sailed and crossed the ocean, something that's always been true is you can only hold that which you can defend. And so that will eventually be the role of the Space Force as well, as we move out to the moon, to cislunar space, to the surface of the moon, and then onto Mars and beyond. As we go, we will have to secure the areas where we are, especially if we have adversaries that have aspirations to go to the same place. And I'll never forget the first meeting that we had with General Jay Raymond, who's the Chief of Space Operations in charge of all the Space Force. Our staff had a meeting with him and one of our, actually, he was an astronaut that was on our staff, asked General Raymond, "So boss, Space Force. What are we, we're saying we defend the earth. So what are we defending from, like aliens?" And General Raymond looked at him and shrugged his shoulders and said, "If not us, who?" And that was eye opening to think, you know what? Anything that comes from space, we are tasked to defend against. And so who knows? That's a little bit of an uncomfortable concept, but that's what we're going to do.
Derek Smith:Sure. Well, you gave it a painted picture of what its role could look like going forward. What did you learn about in terms of space medicine and preparing people for that environment, whatever may come their way?
Sparky Matthews:Sure. So up until this point, so NASA and the military's role in space medicine has been preparing astronauts to go to space. Once they get there, we have some limited capability that we can do with them while they're there. But when it comes down to it, we haven't really focused on the practice of medicine in space. And this is something I talk to students about frequently and came back to Baylor to give a lecture on about two years ago. And we eventually, as the more people that we put in space, the more we have to focus on not bringing patients back, but the practice of medicine in space itself. And that's both going and getting patients from space, so a space ambulance, if you will, transferring patients from one planet to another. So once we go to the moon, if somebody gets hurt or sick there, bringing them back to earth orbit, and then bringing them back to earth. And then eventually, and this is the really exciting thing, is the practice of medicine in space. So medical and surgical care on the surface of other planets, starting with the moon and eventually on Mars. And right now, we're just figuring out what questions we need to ask. We don't have answers for them yet. You think about what a hospital looks like, even a pared down hospital, where you have one OR, one ICU and then an outpatient clinic. How do we do that on Mars? Do we take all the equipment with us? It's really hard to get payload that far out into space. And so do we 3D print things while we're there? How do we produce medications? How do we produce blood products? There's lots and lots of questions that students at Baylor University today can have a role in answering those questions. It's one of the things I hope to bring in a cooperation between NASA and Baylor here in the near future.
Derek Smith:That's great. That's great. Visiting with Dr. Sparky Matthews. And you enjoyed that time as Surgeon General of the Space Force, and then retired from the US Air Force and came to Baylor. And obviously, you mentioned earlier that's been a lifelong dream for you. What opportunities, you mentioned Dr. Hill has had the impact on you, you want to have on students. What are some of the areas of teaching so far in your first year here that have really stood out as meaningful or subjects that you love discussing? What are the things that make it all meaningful to you?
Sparky Matthews:Sure. So, when I was a Commander in the Air Force, I received some very sage advice that a commander should only do what only a commander can do. And so I've taken that forward to my experience here at Baylor, that a physician should only teach what only a physician can teach. And that may rub some of my colleagues the wrong way, but what I mean by that is we have pre-med students and they want to become physicians. The best person to help them become that physician is another physician, someone that's down the road that they're just starting on. That doesn't mean that there are certainly professors need to be teaching them all of the foundational knowledge that will take them to medical school. But there are certain things that I really see as my role. One of those, I teach first year seminars for pre-med students in the honor's college. And I teach them what it's like to be a physician, how to become a physician of honor and character, how to lead as a physician. How does a physician see the world? When a physician makes a mistake, what do you do? What's the next thing you do after that? How do you get better? How do you know that you're doing a good job? Those are things that if you haven't walked that road, it's really difficult to teach. Then on the other end of that spectrum, I teach pathophysiology and pathophysiology is essentially the introduction to students of human disease. So it's the first time our pre-med students have ever learned what happens when the body goes wrong and being able to introduce them to that world and seeing their eyes get wide as we talk about cancer and what we can really do about cancer. How you find it, what do you do about it? All of their learning comes together in that course. One of the other things I really enjoy teaching is the history of medicine. History is an advocation of mine, and being able to show them that you can't understand the practice of medicine today unless you take the measure of the giants on whose shoulders you stand from the past. Going all the way from Hippocrates, forward to Dr. Michael DeBakey. And it's really fun to take them through history and show them how medicine developed, how who they're going to become became from antiquity. And so history of medicine is a part of the medical humanities and the medical humanities are a real love of mine. Everything else we teach students here, biology, chemistry, biochemistry, pathology, pathophysiology, all of those things sets the foundation for how they will practice medicine. But the medical humanities teach them why we practice medicine. And that you don't get that education after you leave undergraduate education. You don't get that in medical school. So we got to pack it into them now.
Derek Smith:A lot of good foundational stuff that can have an impact for sure. Well, Dr. Matthews, we are out of time here on the program. It's going to be exciting to see what those interactions for you and your students in the years ahead as you work to emulate your mentor, Dr. Bill Hillis, and continue that path here at Baylor. So thank you so much for really just sharing your story and we really appreciate your time.
Sparky Matthews:Thank you, Derek. It's been my great pleasure.
Derek Smith:Dr. Sparky Matthews, clinical professor in Baylor's honor's program, our guest today on Baylor Connections. I'm Derek Smith, reminding you can hear this and other programs online, baylor.edu/connections. Thanks for joining us here on Baylor Connections.