Booker T. King, MD, joins the Department of surgery as Chief and Professor, in the Division of Burn Surgery and the Director of the NC Jaycee Burn Center. He sat down to discuss what inspired him to become a doctor, the contributions he has made to science to help burn patients, and his goal to help the burn center be the best academic burn center in the country.
Dr. King obtained his Bachelor of Science magna cum laude from the Sophie Davis School of Biomedical Education at the City College of New York, and his medical degree from New York University (NYU) School of Medicine in 1994. He then pursued his general surgery residency at SUNY Buffalo, during which time Dr. King participated in the Army Medical Command Specialized Training Reserve Assistance Program (STRAP). After completing his general surgery residency training in 1999, he transferred from the Reserves to the active-duty ranks as a Captain with his first assignment as a general surgeon at the Moncrief Army Community Hospital at Fort Jackson, SC. From there, he was reassigned to Heidelberg, Germany, where he deployed to support Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.
After returning to the United States, he pursued a trauma/critical care fellowship at the University of Miami from 2005 to 2007. Once he completed his fellowship, he transferred to the US Army Burn Center at the Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas. He was appointed as Associate Director at the Burn Center and also served as the Associate Program Director of the Trauma/Surgical Critical Care Fellowship. Dr. King’s third deployment was to Afghanistan in 2010. In 2013, he assumed the position of Director of the US Army Burn Center at the Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas. He reassigned to Fort Bragg in 2018 as the Trauma Medical Director and Co-Director of Critical Care Services at the Womack Army Medical Center.
Dr. King is a decorated Colonel having served more than 20 years in the Army, earning two Legion of Merit Awards, two Bronze Star Medals, and four Meritorious Service Medals, among multiple other military honors and awards. He has been an active member of national surgical organizations. His publications have focused on burn injuries and trauma, with particular emphasis on those received in combat. Please join us in welcoming Dr. King to the Department of Surgery at UNC.
What inspired you to become a doctor?
I knew from a young age that I wanted to be a doctor. As an adult, my mother once showed me my report card from kindergarten. It asked what profession you want to be when you grew up. Even back then, it said Doctor and that conviction never wavered. I found it was the best way to combine my two interests, connecting my love of science to being able to help people.
I didn’t have anyone in my family or extended family that was in medicine. I think television had some influence on me. I remember sitting in front of the screen, engrossed in the medical drama “M*A*S*H” set during the Korean War or its spinoff “Trapper John, MD.” Any medical-related shows helped nurture that seed for my love and passion for medicine.
Ironically, when I deployed with the Army for the first time in Iraq in 2003, I was with the 212 M*A*S*H unit. That was the last M*A*S*H unit in the military. They did away with them because they were too large and hard to move. Instead, today they have forward surgical teams, a 20-man unit, much smaller and modular, much more mobile.
How did you decide to pursue surgery?
I didn’t know what I wanted to specialize in when I started my clinical years at NYU. That changed during my medicine rotation in the ER. While we were monitoring a patient that had come in with signs of a heart attack, the trauma team activated. EMTs came rushing in; a young man with a gunshot wound needed to be taken into the OR immediately. The intern and medical student on the trauma rotation were involved in something else and unavailable to assist.
The team approached me and asked if I was a medical student. I said, “yes,” and they asked me to come into the OR to assist. I said, “I don’t know if I can,” but they told me to go and I went.
They did an exploratory laparotomy, a surgical operation where they opened the abdomen to examine the organs and fix the gunshot wound, their focus to stop the bleeding. I scrubbed in, holding tractors and providing support. I fell in love with surgery right there. I did get in trouble the next day because the medicine chief resident was livid and told me that I shouldn’t go to the operating room while on the medicine rotation. However, that was it for me, the beginning of my love for surgery and trauma.
How did you decide to pursue burn surgery? Has it met your expectations?
My love for burn surgery came from my military experience. I deployed at the beginning of the Iraq War. We were one of the hospitals supporting the troops, the first push out to Iraq. We saw a wide range of different injuries, but the burn injuries were the toughest to treat because not many of us had experience treating a burn.
I saw that as a potential area where I could have the most impact on people. Then when I deployed once again in 2007 to Iraq, I was the only person able to manage burn patients. I took care of more than 200 burn patients, mostly pediatric. From that experience, I developed a love for burn surgery.
What brought you to the Department of Surgery at UNC?
As I was leaving my position as Director of the Burn Center at Brooke Army Medical Center, I chose to transition back to North Carolina. I have family here, an aunt who is a mother to me, and one of my sons is in college at Wake Tech. As my last duty post, I accepted a position as the Trauma Medical Director at Womack Army Medical Center at Fort Bragg.
At Womack Army Medical Center at Fort Bragg, we were trying to get our trauma verification. During that process, we worked closely with Daryl Johnson, MD, Trauma Medical Director at UNC Hospital in Chapel Hill, and an Associate Professor with UNC Surgery. While working together, he informed me of the opportunity to become a part of the UNC family.
It’s the perfect situation for me because UNC is a very reputable institution. The burn center also has a long history not just in North Carolina but also around the country. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to be near family, work for a strong program, and continue my passion for burn surgery, the best of all those worlds are at UNC.
What are your contributions to your specialty?
My most significant contribution centers on combat burn injury. We saw many casualties due to improvised explosive devices. The problem that we have in wartime or the field is that many providers don’t have experience treating burn patients. During my deployments, we researched the resuscitation of burn patients. We saw early on that many of the military burn patients were suffering from over resuscitation. We decided to come up with a way of standardizing how we resuscitated burn victims.
To manage traumatic injuries, we developed what we call a joint trauma system. In the joint trauma system, we collect data, analyze that data, and then push out clinical practice guidelines. These guidelines help providers that may not be treating these types of patients regularly to give them some guidance on care.
There have been some prominent burn surgeons around the country, many of whom were deployed reservists that have contributed to this knowledge. It’s a growing database, updated periodically with continued advances. The thing to remember is that this burn care is delivered in a hostile environment where physicians probably don’t have many resources and time. Doctors are trained to move that patient along the evacuation chain and not keep them in a field hospital for too long.
What are some goals you would like to achieve during your time at UNC Surgery?
My ultimate goal is to help the UNC Burn Center be the best in the country. I think the NC Jaycee Burn Center has all the ingredients, all the components to achieve that goal. We have a great staff, excellent research, and support from the surrounding community. There is no reason why we shouldn’t be leaders in the burn world. Throughout the history of the burn center, they have been the best academic burn center in the country several times. Recently that hasn’t been the case, but I want us to get back to that point, to uphold the sterling reputation that the burn center deserves.
Some other goals I’d like to achieve are continuing on the path of innovative research, pushing the needle forward to treat patients. I also want to uphold the vital mission of the Burn Center, which is to deliver the best burn care to the North Carolina community and beyond.
Do you have any pre-surgery rituals?
Before surgery, I’ll take a moment to bow my head and pray. I’m a religious person, and I pray because it’s my connection with God. I pray more now than I did when I first started. When I first started, I thought I knew everything, but after years of experience and going through different things, I’ve been humbled.
If you could pick the brain of someone alive or dead, who would it be? Why?
The person I would choose to sit with recently passed away, Dr. Basil Pruitt. He was the commander and former Burn Director at Brooke Army Medical Center. He led the burn center for over 30 years. He was one of the pioneers of what we do today in burn surgery. I would see him on occasion, but I never had time to sit down and talk to him, pick his brain about specific things. Unfortunately, he passed during my deployment in Iraq in 2019. I wish I had a chance to talk to him because he had a ton of knowledge and history from his extensive career.
What is one thing you wish your patients or coworkers knew about you before they met you?
I want people to know that I’m laid-back and completely focused on the team. I think a team is paramount. I always say burn is a team sport. More than just a team player, I believe in the team. You can’t have good outcomes in your patients and sustainable positive change in any organization without a strong team to support that. The team is all of us, not just the leaders or supervisors. Everyone has to contribute, and everyone has to be encouraged to participate, allowed to contribute. If you have that component, then you’re going to have a robust and progressive organization.
What is a failure you experienced that you carry with you? What did you learn from it?
A failure I think about from time to time happened very early on in my career. It involved an injured patient from Afghanistan. A young lady, she was transported to a hospital in the States. She was beautiful before she had gasoline spilled on her and lit on fire. She came to us with very extensive burns on her face and body. I became her physician. I can look back now and know that I concentrated too much on the cosmetic part of her care, face, and hands and not enough on the rest of her.
One important lesson I learned, something every good burn surgeon learns the hard way, is to get the wounds covered. That’s the key. Then cosmetics come afterward, but you have to get the wounds covered to save the patient’s life. Everything else will follow. If you don’t get that done, then you won’t have a patient.
What might someone be surprised to know about you?
I think people might be surprised to learn that I like classic rap. Not only do I like rap, but growing up, I used to like rap and break dancing.
If you could give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?
I would tell myself to be patient. I was always trying to move to the next thing and excel. I didn’t have the time, nor did I make the time to smell the roses and enjoy things outside of work. I was trying to reach a particular goal, and nothing else mattered. What I found looking back on is that you’re going to achieve that goal eventually. If you try to accelerate that too fast, then you end up making other things suffer. Some things in my personal life may have suffered because I was trying to reach those goals as fast as I could. So I would say be patient, and on top of that, don’t take your family and your personal life for granted.
How would you describe yourself in one word?
Humble. That’s something that if you had asked me ten years ago, I might not have said that. Definitely, 20 years ago I wouldn’t have said that. My time, my experiences in the military, it’s taught me humility. Specifically, humility for what we do for burn. Burn surgery, you can have all the right answers, do all the right things, and the patient outcome may still not be what you want it to be. That’s a humbling thing. It’s unique. You don’t see that in other areas of surgery.
In general surgery, for instance, you have complex patients. However, if you do the right things, for the most part, things turn out how you expect. With burn, sometimes the nature of what happens to these patients, the nature of the injury, is so devastating that even if you do the right things, you do what you think is the right thing, the patient outcome may not be good. That experience has humbled me.
If you can have one superpower, what would it be and why?
My superpower would be to have real, strong empathy. I would like to understand what my patients are going through. I’ve treated many patients, but to understand what each patient is going through, what their family is experiencing, takes it to another level. I can try to relate, but having that power would make me a much better doctor.
When I was in medical school, something which is no longer practiced is a class where we practiced putting IVs into each other. The reasoning behind it was since we were putting IVs in the patient, you needed to know how that feels personally so you can be able to sympathize or empathize with them. You can be a little more careful about what you do. If I was able to do that for a burn patient, even for a day, that would add to my abilities as a doctor.
To find out more about Dr. King, please check out his faculty profile.