Remarkable is a word that most people would use to describe Dr. David Hilmers’ career. Over the course of Hilmers’ expansive career, he has been a Marine, an astronaut and is now a professor of internal medicine and pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine with a commitment to global health projects. Tying it all together is his willingness, even eagerness, to try something that may be difficult.
The jumping-off point of Hilmers’ career was in 1969. Hilmers figured that eventually he would have to join the military because of the lottery system in place during the ongoing Vietnam War. His number had been selected, and during his junior year at Cornell College he signed up for a program with the Marines and went through basic officer training. Post-graduation, he was commissioned, went to flight school and then flew with tactical squadrons for the next four years. Later, the Marines offered him the opportunity to attend graduate school at the Naval Postgraduate School where he earned two graduate degrees in electrical engineering. After graduation he was once again assigned overseas.
While commanding a unit in Japan, Hilmers received word that NASA was looking to hire astronauts for their new space shuttle program.
“I had never really thought about joining the astronaut corps, but it was something that I thought would be an exciting, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Hilmers said. “I put in an application not thinking that I would be selected, but I felt it would be an honor just to apply for the program.”
However, one step led to another and in May of 1980, Hilmers received a very exciting phone call from NASA inviting him to become an astronaut based at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
During his time as a NASA astronaut, Hilmers flew on four shuttle flights. Two of them were secret missions, one was the first mission flown after the Challenger accident and the last was a scientific mission.
Reflecting back on his time in space, he said there are many experiences that stood out to him.
“The one thing that always impressed me most was the fantastic view of Earth from space and being able to see nearly all of the habitable areas of our planet,” Hilmers said. “The beauty of Earth is something that photos can’t fully demonstrate. Other amazing experiences included the exhilarating freedom of movement in zero gravity, the incredible vistas of sunrises and sunsets from space and accelerating off the launch pad to 17,500 mph in just 8 and a half minutes. It was interesting how doing certain tasks that are easily performed here on Earth were difficult in space and vice versa.”
It was during his training for his third mission in space that Hilmers made the decision to attend medical school to pursue his lifelong dream of becoming a doctor. After completing this shuttle flight, he started taking some required courses at night while continuing to work as an astronaut.
“I actually hadn’t planned to fly my fourth mission, but one of my fellow astronauts was killed in a plane crash while in training, and NASA needed someone experienced to step in at the last minute,” Hilmers said. “At that time, it was only a few days before I was to take the MCAT. I continued my pre-med coursework while simultaneously training for this mission, and in the fall I was accepted at Baylor. I think I took my last final exam about a month before my last mission launched in 1992.”
Six months after his last flight, Col. David Hilmers, USMC, retired his spacesuit and military uniform and donned a white coat as he arrived at Baylor as a first-year medical student.
“Growing up, I liked to read about infectious diseases and the lives of people who discovered antibiotics or who developed vaccines. For me, the people who devoted themselves to saving the lives of others were my heroes,” he said.
Hilmers explained that his time as an astronaut reinforced his desire to become a doctor.
“On my missions I would see the magnificent beauty of Earth from space, yet I knew there was much suffering below. This realization strengthened my commitment to obtain the medical knowledge to help others and to one day go to some of the places I had seen from space. In the coming years, whenever things were tough, the memory of those views from space lifted up my spirit and carried me through the eight years of medical school and residency in internal medicine and pediatrics.”
The experiences and skills he gained while being an astronaut have helped him throughout the years of being a doctor, he said.
“Being an astronaut, you are often presented with a malfunction – ‘anomalies’ as we called them – and having a logical framework on which to base your solution was really important. I think this mindset carries across well into medicine. For example, I’m working as a consultant with Baylor Global Initiatives on the Emergency Smart Pod project based on my experiences serving in Liberia during the Ebola outbreak. Designing and building the pod is similar to developing a new crew cockpit for a space craft. In both you have computer, life support, electrical and environmental systems that you need to integrate. I believe that every experience in life becomes an important building block for those things you do later.”
Discussing his extensive career, Hilmers said his personality has played an important part in how he chooses to live his life.
“I have always wanted to explore my limits and have never felt constrained to try something even if it might have seemed impossible at the time. I think it has been the same with medicine. When I talk about my career, I tell the listeners that it’s never too late to live out your dreams, and if you don’t at least make an attempt to achieve them, it will be a regret that you will carry for the rest of your life. Not all my ventures in life have been successful, but always having given them my best shot, even if I failed, was so much better than never having tried.”
Hilmers passion for helping people extends beyond the doctor’s office. Over the years, he has participated in approximately 100 global health trips to 50 different countries, including Iraq, Haiti, North Korea and Liberia. Most recently, he provided medical care in October in refugee camps for those fleeing the violence in South Sudan and later this year will continue a hepatitis B project in North Korea. In the video below, Hilmers expands on his humanitarian efforts and speaks about his aid trips to Africa and North Korea.