Christopher Culp, fleet surgeon for the United States Pacific Fleet, plays the piano inside his home.

A Tale of Two Surgeons: Capt. Christopher Culp

On the Move

Medical Cross - Red

Throughout Chris Culp’s military career, the Navy has moved him and his family 25 times. That nomadic lifestyle provided the physician with a world of experience.

On a parking lot at Pearl Harbor, the home of the U.S. Navy Pacific Fleet in Honolulu, Hawaii, an imminent threat of rain compelled Capt. Christopher Culp, BU ’14, to deal with one of those “serious” issues that can crop up in a successful professional’s life – one that can cause the average swabbie to roll eyes with one of those “I-sure-wish-I-had-problems-like-that” expressions. It seems a roof cable has failed on the Navy doctor’s 16-year-old sports car, leaving his convertible hardtop stuck in Porsche purgatory, somewhere in the limbo between up and down.

He sloughs off the threat with aplomb, making a joke about the constant attention required for the health care needs of an older-model car. One gets the impression that Dr. Culp – Capt. Culp – approaches his job in the Navy with similar equanimity – that coolness “under fire” that is expected of a Navy officer balanced with the warmth people expect from their physicians.

Indeed, Culp faces many problems in his career, and it is a safe bet that almost all of those things are exponentially more serious than a stuck convertible top. When we caught up with him this spring, Culp served as the U.S. Navy Pacific Fleet surgeon, which not only involves dealing with day-to-day health issues of the more than 140,000 sailors and U.S. Marines serving in the fleet’s geographic area (roughly half the globe), but also with countless injuries that affect people in jobs in which danger is the norm – and that’s not counting casualties from combat. Also, Culp’s medical corps branch of the Navy often becomes one of the first responders in providing relief to people in a part of the world beset with natural disasters – tsunamis, earthquakes, cyclones and globally threatening diseases.

The Pacific Fleet, formed in early 1941 around multi-megatons of sea power to deter Japanese expansionism in the region, was, of course, the principal target in the attack on Dec. 7, 1941, that drove the United States into World War II. Today, the theater-level organization provides naval forces for all U.S. military operations in the Asia-Pacific region, which ranges from the West Coast of the Americas to a hemispheric line drawn roughly through the border of India and Pakistan, connecting the North and South poles of the globe.

Christopher Culp, fleet surgeon for the United States Pacific Fleet, poses for a photo in the flag officer's mess.
Christopher Culp, fleet surgeon for the United States Pacific Fleet, poses for a photo in the flag officer’s mess.

In the past two years, Culp was one of a handful of Navy doctors in the world to hold the fleet surgeon title. His office at Pearl Harbor is in a nondescript World War II-era wooden structure. No cameras or recorders of any kind are allowed inside. Nothing with web access can cross into the inner sanctum. Mounted on a wall is a small storage unit, like pigeon nesting boxes with doors, where people coming in deposit their cell phones. Although each cubby has lock and key, most of the doors remain ajar with the contents fully visible. Some phones are actually piled up on top, unprotected. Culp says nothing ever gets stolen.

Inside, Culp, who is warm and comfortable meeting strangers, draws up a chair a few feet from his visitor and engages in conversation rather than recitation of his impressive resume. He does not mention a single one of his many Navy awards.

“I always knew I wanted to be a doctor,” he says, ever since he was a little boy. He remembers no specific Eureka! moment that drew him to medicine; he simply knew what his goal was and never wavered from it. When it was time for college, he picked a major that was a mere step in the process, as a way to wait out the requisite four years until he could get accepted to medical school. “It could have been Chaucer or political science or biomedical engineering, it didn’t matter,” he says. He chose the latter. As it turned out, most of his 15 biomed classmates in that undergraduate class at Vanderbilt University were on the same trajectory.

That was 1983, the same year Culp entered naval service. In exchange for a health professions scholarship from the Navy, he started medical school at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis. He and his undergrad sweetheart, Lynn Mercier, got married. Later, he completed his residency in internal medicine at the Medical College of Georgia.

Contrary to his lifelong connection to medicine, Culp never felt drawn to a military career. “Lynn and I did not expect to stay,” he says candidly. “We planned to be [in the Navy] for four years.” So, at the end of that first hitch, they had a decision to make. “I had a great job and great colleagues. Even though I never felt called to the military, a few years into it you find yourself surrounded by amazing people. I’ve been more of the surprised military guy than the ordained military guy. I love the Navy. I just never expected I would.”

Three navy moves equal A house fire.

For Culp, the only downside was relocating so often. From 1987 through 2016, he and Lynn and their two children have had 24 different addresses. The fleet surgeon gig was his second posting to Honolulu, where he served previously as deputy commander of Tripler Army Medical Center. By the time you read this article, the Culps will already be at their next post 5,000 miles away on the East Coast of the U.S. mainland.

“Three Navy moves equal a house fire,” he says, smiling a crooked grin. Things get banged around and sometimes disappear altogether. “You bring your treasures with trepidation. After I made peace with all the moves, it was just the right fit for me,” he says. The biggest casualty on the move from Washington, D.C., where he served as inspector general for the Navy Medical Corps, was his beloved Diapason piano. The Navy shipped the instrument safely to Hawaii right after Culp stopped over in Gainesville, Georgia, to attend the 2014 commencement exercise on the front lawn of the historic Brenau University campus. It arrived in good shape, but two years in the tropical climate rusted its strings.

Thankfully, the rust hasn’t ruined the music Capt. Culp can make on the instrument. Later that day at his home, he effortlessly and beautifully plays a portion of the second movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata followed by Robert Schumann’s Kinderszinen.

Adopted at 3 months old, Culp has never had adult contact with his biological parents. “I know nothing about the circumstances,” he says. “My adoptive parents were my real parents.” That was all he needed to know. His mom still lives in the same house where he grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Culp was born deaf in his right ear, but it wasn’t diagnosed until he was in kindergarten. As fate would have it, his adoptive mother had a case of mumps that caused her to also lose her hearing in her right ear. Culp was 3 years old at the time. When he was observed favoring his left ear, people didn’t think much of it. “They thought I was just imitating Mom,” he says.

When Culp talks about infectious diseases, his interest in internal medicine gets animated. He believes his own partial deafness may have been caused by a case of mumps that infected his birth mother.

“We think the Zika virus is scary,” he says, “but polio was far worse. It’s been five decades ago, and the current generation doesn’t recall what it was like.” He’s delighted about global medical progress. “We are only about 50 cases from eradicating polio from the Earth, and they’re all in Afghanistan. The Taliban allows vaccinations now,” he says. “According to the World Health Organization, you can declare an epidemic to be over after three half-lives of the incubation period (approximately 90 days). When it happens, we may not know it immediately, but polio could be totally gone very soon,” he says, his eyes sparkling with the concept. You get the feeling he would love to be there when the official announcement is made.

International medical teamwork is not only one of Culp’s key interests, it’s a central part of his command duties. “Global health engagement is a great thing,” he says. “It’s a safe way for the Navy to work with our Pacific neighbors. We build fascinating bridges. It’s medical diplomacy. It’s a fun and interesting way to team up with the People’s Republic of China, the Vietnamese navy and countries from other cultural perspectives.”

Culp is responsible for creating action plans for virtually every imaginable medical need. “Anything that might happen in any theater has a written plan,” he says. “If there’s a typhoon in Indonesia, we know exactly what our troops need.” The USS Mercy is the lead of her class of hospital ships for the U.S. Navy. In addition to providing rapid and mobile care to our military, she sails on humanitarian missions to multiple Pacific nations. “The Mercy is full of Project Hope personnel and other nongovernmental organizations,” Culp says. “They are essential to us, a huge help. We have lots of experience together now.”

Poorest countries need the most help.

Culp shows me a map of where the Mercy will be visiting soon. When the hospital ship travels the Pacific, her functions vary. “The poorest of countries need care,” Culp says. He points to places like Papua New Guinea, Palau and Timor-Leste. “The developed countries don’t want our direct care. They want constructive relationships. They want peer-to-peer professional contact and continuing medical education. In the next tsunami, we are likely to be working with Chinese and Indonesian ships,” he says. What moves and shakes him the most? The peacemaking aspect of the mission. When the Mercy went to Indonesia after the 2006 tsunami, she went for goodwill care. After providing services in a region where the vast majority of the population is Muslim, the favorability rating of the U.S. increased significantly among the Indonesian people.

Read a complete profile of Dr. Miller in THE DOCTOR IS IN (AND ON THE AIR).
Read a complete profile of Dr. Miller in THE DOCTOR IS IN (AND ON THE AIR).

The first time Culp set foot on the Brenau campus was on the day he received his diploma for an M.B.A. from the university’s highly regarded health care administration program. Since his studies were all online, it was also the first time that he met face to face with his top professor in the program, Dr. David Miller, a clinical psychologist who manages the M.B.A. health care administration track. 

The Brenau degree program has been exceedingly popular with military health care who are advancing from clinical to administrative roles in their careers.

“They don’t teach us business in medical school,” says Dr. Kimberly Davis, an ophthalmologist and Navy commander who, when she graduated from Brenau with Culp in 2014, was the director of surgical services at Naval Medical Center in Portsmouth, Virginia. “I run a $60 million budget in my directorate. It would not be an ideal situation if I did not know something about business. I use something I learned in [the Brenau] program every day.”

Never playing the ‘doctor card’

Davis and Culp both heard about the Brenau program from a colleague who previously had completed a Brenau M.B.A. online – Capt. Joel Roos, who coincidentally served as the Navy’s 7th Fleet surgeon from 2014 to 2016 (see related story).

“The Brenau program was a good fit,” said Culp, who previously served as deputy chief of the Navy Medical Corps. “It was a way to do an M.B.A. synchronously whenever we wanted to from wherever we were in the Navy.”

The beauty of the online classes – in addition to accommodating the nomadic lifestyle of a career naval officer– is that they give all the participants a better chance to engage and learn from one another than an on-campus classroom format. You cannot disappear into the back of the class and wait for the bell to ring. You have to engage.

“Chris Culp was invaluable to the class,” says Brenau professor Miller. “With all this vast experience that he brought, he never played the ‘M.D. card’. He always exhibited collegiality in interactions with other students, no matter their background or prior health care experience. Having Chris in class was an outstanding opportunity that many of our students would never have had otherwise. Interacting with someone who clearly had vast clinical and managerial experience was invaluable to their educational experience.”

When Culp enrolled in the M.B.A. program at Brenau University in 2012, he did it to gain insight into leadership and to gain a formal language for it.

“There’s no single strategy for success,” he says. “Some leaders are facilitators, some are coaches, some are dictatorial.” He believes all can be effective, depending on the circumstances. “We strive for a constellation of skills that work in the aggregate.”

What kind of leader is Culp? “I found out I’m a matchmaker, a connector type. For me, success is looking back and thinking you have contributed to the greater good. It’s not about money or rank. I’m glad to have the opportunity to do things that matter,” he says.

Christopher Culp, inspector general for the Navy medical corp in Washington, D.C., earned his Master of Business Administration in health care administration.
Christopher Culp, at commencement receiving his Master of Business Administration in health care administration.

Soon Culp will have another chance to apply those skills. He was scheduled to take command in June 2016 of Kim Davis’ alma mater, the Naval Medical Center in Portsmouth, Virginia, the oldest continuously running hospital in the Navy medical system. Thinking he would have another year in Honolulu, when his orders came through for the Portsmouth assignment, he doubled down on trying to accomplish some more goals for the Pacific Fleet.

“I’d like to move some surgical services far forward,” he says. “I’d like to see medical services with other countries solid and sustained.”

Leaving Hawaii – and the home he and Lynn enjoy on the Hawaii Kai Marina – will take adjustment, but he’s ready to roll with it.

“In this line of work, you get what you get. My training will serve me well at Portsmouth in hospital-based clinical care. I’m returning to a domain of familiarity,” says Culp, who earlier in his career was commanding office for the hospital in Bremerton, Washington.

And, of course, if all goes well, he will have his beloved Porsche and his Diapason piano to soften the transition.

Hob Osterlund, RN, is an award-winning writer and photographer living on the island of Kauai, Hawaii. From 1985 to 2011, she was a clinical nurse specialist at The Queen’s Medical Center in Honolulu.

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