May 23, 2022, 4:00 p.m. David Mitchell — Donald “Raj” Woolever, M.D., studied anthropology and history at Tufts University and had thoughts about following his father into academia or perhaps working in international development. Instead, his international experiences drew him into medicine.
After earning his undergraduate degree, he spent a year as a Fulbright Scholar in Sri Lanka, where he worked as a researcher on a UNICEF project that evaluated basic services for poor urban residents, such as sanitation and health care access.
“That’s when the idea of becoming a doctor first entered my head,” said Woolever, the program director at Maine-Dartmouth Family Medicine Residency in Augusta, Maine. “I didn’t want to just be the person who was coming up with some kind of development plan. I wanted to be the person who was actually doing the work, and it seemed like doctoring was a way to do that.”
Woolever went back to school for a post-baccalaureate, premedical program at Bryn Mawr College and paid for extending his studies by joining the U.S. Air Force. He eventually attained the rank of major in a career path that took him to California, Florida and Germany.
A decade of military service gave him leadership skills as well as an appreciation for having and understanding a shared mission.
“I think for most folks in the military it’s pretty clear what your mission is, and you sort of line up to follow that mission,” he said. “In the civilian world, it’s often a little less clear exactly what the mission is. You have to work harder to create that sense of a shared mission, but I think doing that work is incredibly important for creating the kind of organization you want to be part of.”
After graduating from the family medicine residency program at David Grant USAF Medical Center at Travis Air Force Base in California, Woolever found that he, like his father, was destined for academia after all.
“I come from a family of educators, so I think once I settled on family medicine I quickly moved towards the educational side of things,” he said. “I did a faculty development fellowship, which gave me some additional teaching skills, and I discovered that I liked that residency teaching is more at-the-elbow teaching in a clinical setting and not so much standing in front of a classroom. It was being a doctor and teaching the next generation all at the same time.”
Woolever held a number of teaching, clinical and leadership roles during his time in the Air Force, including his final stop as flight commander in the Department of Emergency Services at Bitburg USAF Hospital in Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany. After Woolever and his wife, family physician Cynthia Dechenes, M.D., completed their service, including three years abroad, they returned to United States.
Woolever spent more than a decade as the program director at the Central Maine Family Medicine Residency in Lewiston before taking a similar tole at Maine-Dartmouth in 2018. He also is a clinical professor of family medicine for the University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine, the University of Vermont School of Medicine and the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth.
On July 29, Woolever will be one of the speakers at the new Resident Boot Camp during the National Conference of Family Medicine Residents and Medical Students.
Woolever, who has been attending National Conference since he was a student at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry in the 1990s, hopes the July 28-30 event in Kansas City, Mo., gives students and residents a deeper understanding of the specialty.
“I hope they gain an appreciation for the things that make family medicine unique,” said Woolever, president of the Family Medicine Education Consortium. “One of our core values is the willingness to invest in continuous healing relationships with our patients, and I think it’s those kinds of commitments to your work as a physician of any kind that allow you to have great job satisfaction and longevity in the role. It’s about your connection with your patients over time.”
Woolever’s Maine-Dartmouth Family Medicine Residency will be among the hundreds of programs exhibiting in person at National Conference for the first time since 2019. The pandemic forced the event into a virtual format the past two years.
“It’s really hard to do something like National Conference, where you have the opportunity to meet lots of different students from all over the place, on a virtual platform,” said Woolever, whose program offers 10 residency slots per year. “It’s just not the same. You can’t have that kind of casual conversation that you want to have with folks when they just sort of mosey up to your booth and stand and chat for a while. It’s hard to replicate that in a virtual platform. A significant number of the folks that we end up inviting to interview are people that we’ve met at National Conference.”
Woolever also hopes to eventually resume his international travels. In addition to his military service abroad and experience as a Fulbright scholar, Woolever attended the School for International Training in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India, between high school and college and completed an international fellowship in Zimbabwe during medical school.
Woolever’s parents — both children of missionaries — were born and raised in India. Although he grew up in upstate New York, they gave him the middle name Rajan.
“It’s directly from their India connections,” he said, “and they wanted to make sure that was reflected in their kid’s name.”
Both of Woolever’s children attended the same boarding school in India that their grandparents attended for at least one year of high school, and Woolever, excluding the pandemic, has returned to southern India regularly for informal consulting work with a relatively new residency program there.
“It has been such a privilege to be part of helping to bring family medicine to India,” he said. “India has given so much to me and my family. Everyone deserves a family doctor, and I hope those meaningful relationships help bring better health to India.”