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Military Faces: Donald O. Quest, MD

benzilGuest Post from Deborah L. Benzil, MD, FACS, FAANS
Chair, AANS/CNS Communications and Public Relations Committee
Care Mount Medical Group
Columbia University Medical Center
Mt Kisco, New York

Donald O. Quest, MD, FAANS(L), is the consummate neurosurgeon, having reached the pinnacle in surgical technique, as an educator, and in administrative and leadership positions. Medical students, residents and many other neurosurgeons have benefited from his dedication to teaching and mentoring during his long career. Few realize, however, that his distinguished career could easily have been derailed. What a great loss that would have been! Several neurosurgeons served in Vietnam as physicians, and we have previously highlighted the experience of Patrick J. Kelly, MD, FAANS(L) and Stan Pelofsky, MD, FAANS(L). Don Quest’s Vietnam encounter came in a very different way and thus had a different impact. Recently, Dr. Quest agreed to discuss his Vietnam combat experience and to share it with others for the Military Faces feature of the Neurosurgery Blog.

Donald O. Quest, MD

Donald O. Quest, MD

Growing up a Midwesterner, Dr. Quest had never seen an ocean, but he had the great fortune of gaining a coveted Navy scholarship to cover the entire cost of his undergraduate education. After a summer seasick on a destroyer, and one spent with the Marines, he made the decision to become a Navy pilot. Following undergraduate graduation at the University of Illinois, where he majored in mathematics, he attended flight training and rapidly moved through all the steps of aircraft carrier qualification. As he related in his AANS Presidential address in 2007, despite his exposure to World War II memories as a child, “when joining the military in times of peace one doesn’t think of having to fight-naiveté or wishful thinking.” Upon receiving his Navy wings — mastering flight of the Douglas Skyraider as a single-engine fighter — he was assigned to Attack Squadron 115 in the Pacific. It was the early 1960s. His aircraft carrier was the new USS Kitty Hawk, and while there were stops in exotic ports such as Hong Kong, there was also the conflict in Vietnam.

The year was 1964 when his squadron became engaged in the Vietnam Conflict. During the ensuing years, he flew 31 successful combat missions, with the purpose of interrupting supply routes, close air support in the South and covering during rescue operations in the North. These were the same types of flights familiar to many Americans as those flown by Senator John McCain (which led to his long years as a POW).  Dr. Quest still attends Veteran conventions but is glad that many of the more difficult memories of those years have faded. With clear visceral recall, however, he related the fear of performing a treacherous landing on the ship at night in the rain, when the margin for error was even smaller than usual. Even more frightening was being fired on at night when the black sky provided a stark contrast to the many flares, tracers and missiles illuminated at close range. While he has traveled extensively and been to other parts of Asia, he has no desire to return to Vietnam — the memories and the losses are still too great.

His experience in Vietnam has shaped the remainder of his life and greatly influenced many of his choices. In his inimitable way, Dr. Quest turned tragedy to good, and neurosurgery is thankful for this along with many patients and their families whose lives he has touched. Upon return, he applied to just two medical schools and was accepted and attended Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. While he started medical school with no chosen specialty, he recognizes that having achieved the pinnacle position of carrier pilot probably influenced his ultimate choice of neurosurgery (then considered an elite subspecialty). Early exposure to neuroscience giants including J. Lawrence Pool, MD, and H. Houston Merritt, MD, were other important factors.

In retrospect, Dr. Quest saw many parallels of flight training and neurosurgical training and poignantly devoted his AANS Presidential address entirely to this subject. Beyond this, he also notes several other valuable and impactful lessons from his Navy years. The importance of teamwork has continuously been a driving force, always recruiting great people. The result has been departments and boards known for their depth and breadth. Working on a Quest team, one always feels respected and that your ideas are heard. This is a rare and remarkable trait. Further, he stresses the need to develop skills and knowledge to a top degree as well as achieving the capacity to intuitively and creatively get out of trouble should the need arise.

jazzToday, Dr. Quest remains dedicated to education and mentoring, primarily through his role as Assistant Dean of Student Affairs at Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons. He also remains an active member of the neurosurgery faculty as a professor. After 75 years, he is spry, cuts a sharp figure, can play exuberant jazz sets on the trombone and displays wisdom and philosophy as befits him. Dr. Quest did not choose to spend years in active combat, but that is what life dealt him. Remembering those years is clearly still painful, and he is acutely aware of the difference between the hero reception of the WWII pilots compared with opposite received by the veterans of the Vietnam Conflict. Reflecting on this recently, he poignantly stated, “when those making a decision about going to war haven’t ever experienced combat, there is too much potential for catastrophe.” He further rued the wanton attacks on the character of Veterans such as Senator McCain.

For Don Quest, the words of Shakespeare’s Henry V capture much of what is essential in battle and in neurosurgery (and some might add in all of life):  mission, camaraderie and loyalty. All of neurosurgery honors Dr. Don Quest for his many contributions to the military and subsequently neurosurgery with these fitting words:


Donald O. Quest, MD

This story shall the good man teach his son
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world
But we in it shall be remembered
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that shed his blood with me
Shall be my brother, be he ne’er so vile
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.


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