Called to Serve and Heal

Navy veteran, James Thornton, M.D., trains the next generation of plastic surgeons at his alma mater

Photo collage of military tactical jets and helicopters with an image of Dr. James Thorton performing a surgical procedure in an operating room
Illustration by Robert D. Waller/UT Southwestern Medical Center; Source images: Provided by James Thornton

Spend time around the military and you’ll notice service members talk about their work differently.

For starters, they don’t call it a job. Instead, they use words like duty, service, and mission.

Speak with enough educators and you’ll notice something similar.

James Thornton, M.D., worked in both worlds, serving with the United States Navy and UT Southwestern Medical Center. His offices were Southeast Asia and the operating room. His KPIs were measured in lives saved and lives changed.

"Every Veterans Day, I think about how lucky I was to have one rare chance to serve my country,” Dr. Thornton said. “Veterans Day reminds me how much I miss the organization, the sense of community, duty, and the rigor of the military where every single day counted. In the Navy, it all worked out for me.”

View out of a Navy T-45 Goshawk cockpit of three other training aircraft flying in formation
Navy T-45 Goshawk training aircraft fly in formation over South Texas in 2002. Provided by James Thornton
James Thornton
James Thornton, M.D., takes a selfie inside a T-45 Goshawk while stationed in Corpus Christi, Texas, as Flight Surgeon for the Chief of Naval Air Training in 2002. Provided by James Thornton

A graduate of UT Southwestern Medical School, Dr. Thornton returned to his alma mater after serving in the military – and never left. He is currently a surgeon and Professor in the Department of Plastic Surgery.

“I was delighted every day to be in the Navy as a Flight Surgeon, but I still wanted nothing more than to return to UT Southwestern,” Dr. Thornton said. “I now realize that my one year surgical internship at UT Southwestern prepared me fully for everything I saw in the Navy, from aircraft mishaps to severe burns.”

Early in his medical career, Dr. Thornton developed a passion for facial surgery, building one of the nation’s busiest practices around Mohs reconstruction. Dermatologists frequently use Mohs micrographic surgery to precisely remove skin cancer. Dr. Thornton works closely with them, performing thousands of facial reconstruction procedures after Mohs surgery and becoming one of the highest volume specialists in the country.

“What I truly enjoy about my surgical work is that it is so hands-on,” he said. “There is such gratification, working with your hands and having that immediate effect. What we do in reconstruction is nothing short of helping people get back their normal and healthy appearance.”

From pilot’s son to Flight Surgeon

Born in North Carolina, Dr. Thornton moved to Texas at age seven. His father was a career astronaut and a doctor.

James Thornton
James Thornton, M.D. Kate Mackley/UT Southwestern Medical Center

“I grew up around a lot of high-speed guys who were both pilots and physicians,” said Dr. Thornton, who wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and practice medicine.

He struggled in college, finishing with a 2.7 GPA, which was barely passing. No medical schools took interest.

Determined, he camped outside the dean’s office at four different Texas universities until UT Southwestern agreed to look over his application.

“Even with my horrible GPA, they took a chance on me,” he said.

The Navy helped pay for medical school, and after completing the first year of his general surgical internship with UT Southwestern at Parkland Memorial Hospital, Dr. Thornton was deployed as a Squadron Flight Surgeon. Responsible for the health of pilots and their families, he was assigned to helicopter and tactical jet squadrons in Hawaii before being stationed in the Philippines and South Korea.

Three years later, he joined the Navy Reserve as a Flight Surgeon and returned to the Medical Center to complete his surgical internship, actively drilling with the military during his residency. He completed a two year plastic surgery fellowship at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia, eventually returning to Dallas to join UT Southwestern's faculty. In 2002, he was deployed for four months to Naval Air Station Corpus Christi where he served as a Station Flight Surgeon. He retired as a Captain in the Navy Reserve in 2015 after a 25-year military career.

Wearing their flight suits, James Thornton and a fellow serviceman pose in front of a helicopter in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii
James Thornton, M.D., right, poses with a Marine in front of a helicopter at Marine Corps Base Hawaii in 1991. Dr. Thornton served as a Flight Surgeon attached to helicopter and tactical jet squadrons stationed at the military facility located in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii. Provided by James Thornton

Throughout his education and career, he developed discipline.

“In aviation, you always use a lot of check lists and have to be meticulous about everything you do because there are great consequences if you don’t,” he said. “As a surgeon, you have to be equally meticulous. I also see an overlap in that surgeons have to be hard-charging, as are pilots. Both the military and medicine involve a community of people doing something where it is about everyone working together, contributing to a greater cause.”

“Having been in the military has made me unquestionably a better doctor.”

The military equipped Dr. Thornton with crisis management skills and the ability to devise real-time solutions in high-stress conditions. It also imbued him with a perspective that served him well in medicine.

“No matter how hard I might be working here in medicine, there are so many in the military who are working harder – dealing with no running water, away from their families, in a demanding combat deployment,” he said. “We have so many material comforts here, while the military puts you in harsh conditions. Having been in the military has made me unquestionably a better doctor.”

An integral part of UT Southwestern

Veterans like Dr. Thornton are an important part of UT Southwestern’s students and alumni.

Associate Registrar Stephanie Miller estimates there are 25 currently enrolled students at UT Southwestern, including military veterans and family members receiving veterans’ benefits.

“UT Southwestern is known as a very welcoming educational community,” said Ms. Miller, who is UT Southwestern’s School Certifying Official for Veterans Educational Benefits. “And we are certainly working to identify even more veterans to come to our campus.”

UT Southwestern employees who served in the military pose for a group photo
UT Southwestern employees who served in the U.S. military gather in McDermott Plaza during a campus Veterans Day celebration on November 7, 2017. UT Southwestern Medical Center

“What makes veterans such great hires is their ability to work under pressure.”

Behind UT Southwestern’s mission of education, research and patient care, approximately 800 veterans serve as part of the team of faculty and staff, filling such positions as physician assistants, senior level nurses, and department supervisors.

“What makes veterans such great hires is their ability to work under pressure,” said Michael Quezada, a 22-year military veteran who helps recruit new faculty and staff to UT Southwestern as a Military Talent Consultant. “Most veterans have served in adverse environments where the work is high volume and at a fast pace. And the second most crucial quality that most veterans have is that they can easily lead by example, especially when supporting leadership and executing orders.”

‘A big commitment’

Across two decades of teaching, Dr. Thornton has averaged six plastic surgery residents. Three of those have been active-duty service members.

Dr. Ian Wisecarver and Dr. James Thornton perform a surgical procedure on a patient in the operating room
James Thornton, M.D., right, performs a facial surgical procedure with the help of Ian Wisecarver, M.D., at UT Southwestern. Provided by James Thornton

“When one of them comes along, we grab and tightly hold on to them to train them because we know they will go back to the military and serve as plastic surgeons, taking care of active-duty military personnel,” he said. “We know how beneficial it is to have them.”

For residents with ambitions of joining the military, he offers the same advice.

“I tell them that when it comes to the military, you are making a big jump, signing up for a big commitment,” Dr. Thornton said. “As a surgeon, you are used to making your own decisions. The military will take that away from you, completely.”

Ian Wisecarver, M.D., a fourth-year plastic surgery resident at UT Southwestern, first met Dr. Thornton during his hospital rotations. For Dr. Wisecarver, the chance to learn from the veteran plastic surgeon was “the best way to receive the best training possible,” and he soon saw parallels between Dr. Thornton’s surgical skills and military experience.

“In the operating room, as in a military operation, there are multiple people with different jobs all sharing the same goal of keeping everyone safe,” Dr. Wisecarver said. “The surgeon is definitely the captain of the ship. In an operating room, things can go from being normal to chaos in an instant. In that moment, someone has to take control. That person is clearly Dr. Thornton, who does it with composure and confidence because of his long career in the military where he has taken control of similar situations.”

James Thornton and Ian Wisecarver skydive
James Thornton, M.D., right, skydives with Ian Wisecarver, M.D. Dr. Thornton finds skydiving to be a great way to build comraderie with colleagues and residents. Provided by James Thornton

As he contemplated military service, Dr. Wisecarver found Dr. Thornton’s advice encouraging and realistic.

“He is very supportive of me wanting to join the military, for both the life and medical experiences it offers,” Dr. Wisecarver said. “He is honest about what being in the military entails – what I could gain and what it could cost. He is nothing if not insightful about the pros and cons of what that lifestyle would be like.”

Combining care with planning and empathy

Dr. Thornton first met Jeffrey Kenkel, M.D., in 1994, when the pair were plastic surgery residents. Today, Dr. Kenkel is a Professor and Chair of the Department of Plastic Surgery.

“James was always willing to take care of anybody and anything,” said Dr. Kenkel, who also directs the institution’s Clinical Center for Cosmetic Laser Treatment. “The kind of work he does here at UT Southwestern requires him to assess the patient after a skin cancer is removed and then come up with a plan. His thinking has got to be streamlined in order to make a decision on how best to take care of the patient. I’m sure he learned a lot of that through his military experience.”

Another one of Dr. Thornton’s colleagues, Allen Morey, M.D., served 24 years as part of the U.S. Army Medical Corps and was a Urology Consultant to the Army Surgeon General. After retiring from the military, Dr. Morey joined UT Southwestern in 2007 where he currently serves as a Professor of urology.

“Our lessons learned in the military are all about team work, inclusion, and leadership ...”

For Dr. Morey, military service shaped the way he and Dr. Thornton practice medicine as well as their ability to understand the needs of injured patients.

“Whether it be a facial injury due to a cancer removal, or a urinary injury due to a bomb blast,” Dr. Morey said, “these are challenges we identified early on in our military experience, and UT Southwestern enabled us to take that interest and incorporate it into our respective practices. Our lessons learned in the military are all about team work, inclusion, and leadership – all translating well in medicine. In the military, if you really care about the soldier or sailor, the patient, or the team, you will get the job done well.”

Building teams and a family

Dr. Thornton admitted there are things he misses about military life. The daily routine that prioritized physical fitness and personal wellness is something he works to instill in others.

“There was a balance of life where I made sure to carve out time from the day for physical activity just to stay in shape,” he said. “And like in the military, I try to be as inclusive as I can with my residents.”

Inclusivity blends with physical fitness in Dr. Thornton’s home garage, which is outfitted as a gym. There, he regularly hosts “workout and waffles,” inviting residents to trek over to his Dallas home on Saturday mornings for a rigorous military-style workout followed by breakfast.

James Thornton and his students stand in his garage for a photo before their weekend workout
James Thornton, M.D., far right, poses for a photo with his residents and their families before their weekend workout at his home garage. Provided by James Thornton

“After our CrossFit session, we’ll have waffles and cook some steaks,” he said. “It’s a combination of resident teambuilding and military physical fitness. After one of our sessions, everybody looks happy and tired, like we’ve really done something.”

Medicine and the military are legacies that Dr. Thornton and his wife of 31 years – she’s an anesthesiologist – shared with their six children. Two of their sons followed in their parents footsteps and attended medical school. Nick Thornton, M.D., is completing a surgery internship at UT Southwestern. Michael Thornton graduated from U.S. Marine Corps Officer Candidates School as his father did 40 years earlier. Like his dad, he decided not to accept a commission and is attending medical school at The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.

James Thornton with his sons Nick and Michael
James Thornton, M.D., center, stands with his sons, from left, Michael Thornton and Nick Thornton, M.D., in the anatomy lab at The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. Provided by James Thornton

In many ways life and career have come full circle. Reflecting on his journey, Dr. Thornton remarked how much began with being accepted by one of the country’s most prestigious medical schools.

“I often think back to that Dean of Students taking a big gamble on me,” Dr. Thornton said. “For an institution to take a real chance on a scruffy longshot – that was simply unheard of. But they saw that nobody wanted to be a doctor more than I did. As a result, I have so much loyalty to this school because they have done right by me every step of the way.”

  • Dr. Kenkel holds the Betty and Warren Woodward Chair in Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery and the Rod J. Rohrich, M.D. Distinguished Professorship in Wound Healing and Plastic Surgery.
  • Dr. Morey holds the Distinguished Chair in Urology for Urologic Reconstruction, in Honor of Allen F. Morey, M.D.