Engineering alumna and Navy surgeon conquers chaos with a focus on the basics
In her 16 years in the U.S. Navy, Cmdr. Stacy Coulthard '02 learned to cope with chaos by falling back on the skills she learned as a College of Engineering student and rescue squad volunteer at Virginia Tech.
A trauma surgeon, Coulthard has assisted in disaster and humanitarian efforts, cared for deployed sailors, and provided medical care for members of the U.S. Congress and Supreme Court justices. While serving at Congress, she was present for President Barack Obama's second inauguration, provided medical service for Democratic and Republican National Conventions, and traveled for the funeral of Nelson Mandela.
“When you’re in the military, you get used to going where they tell you to go, at the drop of a hat sometimes with less than 24-hour notice,” Coulthard said.
Growing up in Radford, Coulthard knew she wanted to be a doctor. A mentor recommended majoring in a field other than pre-medical studies, advising her to choose “something that you’re interested in and you will be successful.” She chose engineering science and mechanics at Virginia Tech, minoring in mathematics.
Coulthard also wanted hands-on medical experience while working on her undergraduate degree, so Coulthard applied to the Virginia Tech Rescue Squad.
“One of my girlfriends had joined the rescue squad and it sounded like a blast. I took a CPR class with them, asked around a little more, and then saw an advertisement to apply on a table in the dining hall. So, I did and got accepted,” Coulthard said.
For the next three years, Coulthard moved up the ranks of the student-led organization, passing her EMT-Basic course, becoming a trained emergency driver, and then being elected as vice president.
“We responded to emergency calls on the Virginia Tech campus. We had an operating budget, ambulances to keep running, and certifications that we had to maintain. The entire rescue squad consisted of undergraduate students doing all these high-level administrative tasks as a functional, certified rescue squad,” Coulthard said.
After graduating, Coulthard attended Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, where she received her master’s degree in anatomy. She then attended Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk. Because of the school’s proximity to Naval Station Norfolk, many of her classmates were serving in the U.S. Navy. Coulthard’s father was a Vietnam-era veteran and her brother had been a member of the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets, both of which instilled a value in service to her country. However, the decision to join the Navy had little to do with her surroundings.
Cpl. Christopher Weaver ’02, a friend from Virginia Tech, served in the Marine Corps Reserve. As Coulthard was considering her next steps including which branch she should join if she opted for military service, Weaver suggested the Navy, explaining that Navy doctors, nurses, and chaplains serve with the Marine Corps. But Coulthard didn’t seriously consider joining until her first year of medical school, when Weaver was killed in an IED explosion in Iraq.
“I remember thinking, ‘Chris deserved somebody who really cared about treating him and wanted to save his life,’ and that really drove me in the direction I went. That’s why I joined the Navy,” Coulthard said.
Coulthard participated in the Health Professions Scholarship Program during her second year of medical school and was commissioned as an officer upon receiving her Doctor of Medicine in 2008. She completed an internal medicine residency at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth, and was stationed at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Shortly after, she was selected to be a staff physician at Congress.
Following her assignment at the Capitol, she pursued a five-year surgical residency at Emory University in Atlanta. In 2022, Coulthard was deployed in Northern Europe with more than 3,000 sailors and Marines. She returned home in August 2022 and one year later, began a Trauma Surgery and Surgical Critical Care Fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania and Penn Presbyterian Medical Center in Philadelphia, where she is today.
Coulthard’s medical training and experience is extensive, but in a trauma situation, she said her first thoughts and actions are always directed by skills she learned at Virginia Tech.
“I tell my medical students and junior residents, that the first things I do in the trauma bay are the things I learned on the rescue squad,” said Coulthard. “It’s chaos when a patient comes in with a life-threatening injury, and you have to fall back on the basics.”
Engineering and mathematics still influence Coulthard’s approach to patient care in the intensive care unit, including topics Coulthard swore she would never use as a doctor.
“I was talking about Fourier Transforms [a mathematical model] just the other day on rounds. We were doing neurologic monitoring on an ICU patient, discussing how the data we were obtaining was analyzed by the monitoring device,” said Coulthard. “Being a surgeon is a lot like being an engineer. We just do it in a biological system instead of a mechanical one.”
Throughout Coulthard’s career, she has uncovered unexpected connections to Hokie Nation. On her last deployment, at least three other officers were Virginia Tech graduates. One of her senior surgical colleagues and mentor, Craig Shepps ’90, is not only a Virginia Tech alumnus, but an engineering graduate with 30 years of military service.
“All you have to do is ask and you’ll find Hokies everywhere, in all facets of life.”