'Human Connection': Doctor's Experiences in Iraq Help Him Relate to Vets
Like any physician, Fernando Cobos maintains a frantic schedule.
Unlike other physicians, however, Cobos has also managed to fit in two tours in Iraq in the U.S. Army Reserves in addition to overseeing outpatient services at FirstHealth's Behavioral Services and raising a family with his wife, Luisa.
Cobos was born in Ann Arbor, Mich., in 1967 to a Colombian father and German mother. The family moved back to Bogota when Cobos was 2 or 3, and he grew up there.
His father was a child psychiatrist, and although Cobos didn't initially plan to become a psychiatrist, he did follow in his father's footsteps to a degree. He earned his M.D. from a Jesuit university in Colombia, Pontificia Universidad Javeriana.
Cobos considered other fields of medicine at first, primarily internal medicine, but started gravitating toward psychiatry.
"I speak with patients, chit-chat with them to find what makes them tick," Cobos says in his unassuming manner. "I think pound-for-pound, mental suffering hurts more than physical suffering, plus chronic mental pain often trickles down to cause physical illness as well."
While at medical school, he met and married his wife, Luisa, a dental student. When it was time to start his residency, the couple decided to move back to the U.S.
Cobos completed his residency at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City.
"We stayed there for four years, and I really enjoyed it," he says. "The best part about Manhattan was the walking, the museums, people from everywhere."
During his second year of residency, Cobos participated in an open-ended study of persons with schizophrenia and cocaine addiction.
"I was assigned one of the groups, and saw them twice a week for most of my residency," says Cobos. "I came to know them so well. I knew their stories, what they hoped for from life, what was important to them. And I knew I had chosen the right field."
Cobos also saw how addiction made their underlying illnesses and quality of life worse. Through this, he developed an interest in addiction treatment.
Toward the end of his residency, the couple had their first child, Nicholas.
Navigating the sidewalks and subways with a stroller reduces New York's charm significantly, and the family moved to Boston, where Cobos did an addiction psychiatry fellowship at Massachusetts General Hospital, a teaching and research hospital at Harvard University.
Cobos stayed there three more years working as an attending psychiatrist and instructor. He and his wife also had their second child, Christian. But it was time again to move on.
"The real estate in Boston was too expensive," Cobos says. "We already had two kids and were still renting. I felt I couldn't afford anything I would want near the city."
So again, the family packed up and moved, this time to Pittsburgh, Pa. Cobos worked as an addiction psychiatrist and assistant professor at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, the psychiatric hospital of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
While purchasing the family's first home and arranging for homeowners' insurance, Cobos' agent mentioned he was in the U.S. Army Reserves and told Cobos the Reserves could use doctors with his experience.
"They really needed psychiatrists at the time, and I felt that destiny was telling me something," he says.
"It wasn't something I was looking for, but by then the Sept. 11 attacks had taken place. I just had the sense that something was being asked of me. So I said yes."
Cobos is now a major in the Reserves' Medical Corps. As a physician, Cobos has treated a little bit of everything during his two three-month tours, but he treated different responses to stress.
"It's been a very rewarding experience," Cobos says. "Soldiers are dealing with separation from their families in addition to the threat of combat, injury, death. It is satisfying to contribute by helping a soldier feel better, alleviate his or her stress a little.
His first tour in Iraq came in late 2004, and after his return, the Cobos family -- now with a third son, Sebastian -- moved to the Sandhills.
"We had had our eyes on North Carolina for some time," says Cobos. "The weather is great, it is a growing state, and we have family in Raleigh. I had called a headhunter, and FirstHealth sounded like a good opportunity."
Initially he was hired to head the Pinehurst Treatment Center, but has since moved into the role of medical director of outpatient services within FirstHealth's Behavioral Services, specifically the department's intensive outpatient program.
"That's my sweetheart. It involves what I like most: interaction with clients," Cobos says. "Most clients come in daily for a three-hour program. It really helps minimize the risk of hospitalization and it helps people step down from inpatient status."
He adds that the outpatient program involves a lot of peer group support.
"The clients are able to get better through getting to know other people in similar situations and sharing their experiences," Cobos says.
Cobos completed his second tour in Iraq several months ago.
The Human Connection
For Cobos, psychiatry is always about the human connection.
"To me, it is one of the last bastions of being able to be more interactive, being able to treat the whole person," he explains. "It allows the opportunity to interact not only with the patient, but with his family and the community."
While still a medical student rotating through a rural hospital's pediatrics department in Colombia, Cobos made a very human connection.
A physician assigned him a child who needed constant care. In addition to his other duties, Cobos carried the child, helped to feed it, comforted it, changed its diapers.
"I'd be studying, holding a book in one hand, while feeding the baby. That's a human connection," he says. "I think medicine has become so transactional, with less focus on the necessary alliance and connection between the doctor and patient. Because of this, doctors can sometimes be perceived as haughty. That's not good for a therapeutic alliance. Clients have to believe that you are empathizing with their situation."
It's the human connection that probably makes Cobos so easy to talk to, so accessible.
"Dr. Cobos is one of those rare psychiatrists who are very approachable," says Marianne Kernan, National Alliance on Mental Illness Moore County chapter president. "He doesn't rush you, he gives you his time. When you're talking to him, you're the only person there and he has such empathy."
"I've gotten to apply my trade in the university setting and the private setting, in war, in peace, in the North and South," he says. "I'm very proud of it. It's a real blessing I have. I love what I do. I don't get bored or sick of it. Yes, it gets hectic, but I know how important it is."
Mary Griffin is a former staff writer for The Pilot.
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