Mark D. Price’s colleagues will tell you that he is a top notch guy—a stellar student who earned both MD and PhD degrees from the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology program (HST) and an all-around fascinating human being who is a Commander in the U.S. Navy Reserves, received the Bronze Star Medal for meritorious service in combat operations in Afghanistan, and in the past year became the Head Team Physician and Medical Director for the New England Patriots.
But if you were to ask Mark how he managed to create such an impressive resume, he would say it was by accident or pure luck. And he would say it with a chuckle and a smile.
How an English major became a doctor
Mark started at Northwestern University in Chicago as an English major, with the intention of going to law school. But he took a survey class called Introduction to Biomedical Engineering, where he learned about various applications in that field.
That motivated Mark to transfer to biomedical engineering, where he met Jay Walsh, an HST alum and faculty member at Northwestern. Mark recounts, “Jay was a great mentor . . . a prototypical HST graduate, sort of right on the edge between hard-hitting very fundamental research, but he had a direct clinical application. He was just super awesome.”
As graduation approached, Mark considered his options: “I’d thought about medicine, but I thought being a doctor would be too boring, because you’d do the same thing every day and I just didn’t think that I was cut out for that . . . but then when I saw that you can do medical stuff that makes a big impact and still lets you use your math and science and really try to develop new things, then it became much more exciting and interesting.” So Mark decided to focus on biomedical research and joined a startup in New York that made small MRI machines fitted to extremities such as the wrist, elbow, knee, or ankle.
After a few years in industry, Mark decided to pursue a PhD. He sought advice from his former mentor, Jay Walsh, who encouraged him to apply to HST’s Medical Engineering and Medical Physics (MEMP) PhD program. Then, as now, the HST admissions process was highly competitive; even with Walsh’s support, Mark was uncertain about the likelihood of acceptance.
Mark says, “I didn’t think I had a snowball’s chance in hell of getting in. I’m pretty sure that I got an interview purely as a courtesy to Jay. I’ve never been more relaxed in an interview in my life because I thought I didn’t belong. I could joke around . . . and I wasn’t nervous about saying the wrong thing . . . because of that I think I had a great interview.”
Despite his doubts, Mark was accepted to HST’s MEMP PhD program and moved his family to Cambridge in 1996. As a PhD student, Mark engaged in research on quantum information processing in nuclear magnetic resonance, but he was troubled by the lack of medical applications related to his research. Then he took the anatomy course taught by HST Professors Farish Jenkins and Lee Gehrke, which motivated him to reconsider medical school.
“Farish was the course director for anatomy and he was like Cary Grant, Indiana Jones, everybody rolled up into one,” Price describes. “He was just the most amazing teacher. It was anatomy but it wasn’t arm-bone-connected-to-the-elbow-bone—it was very functional. We learned how limb buds turned into wings and some could turn into hands and others and what the similarities and differences were and what the biomechanics of it was. All of the sudden it opened up this whole other world that medicine isn’t just memorizing stuff, but it’s actually thinking about how things happen which appealed very much to my physics side—I don’t have to memorize stuff. I can derive it. If I can start from F=MA and figure out the rest from there I’m much happier.”
Mark also credits HST Professors Lee Gehrke, “one of the most fantastic teachers I have ever encountered,” and Rick Mitchell, “ a powerhouse pathology teacher,” as instrumental in shaping his medical pursuits. “You have some of the best teachers you’ll ever encounter at HST. The brightest minds. The best researchers. They get you excited about it almost in spite of yourself.” And so, following his PhD, Mark joined the HST MD program, graduating in 2003.
Orthopaedics and sports medicine
In medical school, Mark considered a number of specialties—from vascular surgery to interventional radiology. He was fascinated with the regenerative work that could be done in an operating room. One patient who had a hip replacement was able to walk again after being in a wheelchair. That life changing testimony had a profound impact on Price and led him to specialize in orthopedics. “It’s not curing cancer,” he says. “It’s not saving people from heart attacks or brain tumors, but it still makes a definable difference in these people’s lives.”
An avid sports fan, Mark did a clinical fellowship in sports medicine. He became an orthopaedic surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) Sports Medicine Center and launched his career in sports medicine, which included various roles with the New England Patriots, the Boston Red Sox, and other local teams. Mark likes working with athletes because they are a very motivated population. He says, “You spend more time dialing them back than you do pushing them along.”
Price says that one of the highlights of his week is to go to the training room to see the players. “It’s funny to hear a surgeon not say the ‘operating room’ as his highlight, because that’s why we all got into this,” Mark explains. “But when you’re able to see your patients to measure their progress and see them getting back to what they enjoy . . . and then they send you a photo of their next triatholon, or you watch them score a touchdown or whatever it happens to be, there’s a lot of pride in watching those kinds of things happen.”
You are Tomorrow; You are the Navy (Recruiting slogan 1988-1990)
In high school, Mark had considered attending the Naval Academy. As he jokes, “Maybe I saw Top Gun one too many times.” His father was supportive and encouraging, but was also a realist. Mark recounts: “My dad was great and said ‘I think it’s a great institution and a great education, but understand you’re not going to college, you’re going to work. You’re getting up at 5am and getting yelled at so you want to think about that . . . know what you’re getting into.’ And I thought, maybe I’m not really ready for that.”
Decades later, Mark attended a lunch seminar where a recruiter spoke about the Navy Reserves and their need for people in critical professions such as medicine. Mark thought that sounded interesting and went home to talk it over with his wife. “They had the fact sheet there and I thought, ‘Here I am now, 34 or 35, and we’ve just had our third child . . . and this same woman who moved up to MIT with me from New York and watched every shift in my career plans and she’s the most patient woman in the world.’ So I asked, ‘Hey, what do you think about the Navy?’ And she was like, ‘Are you totally insane?’”
Despite her intial reaction, Mark’s wife encouraged him to pursue the opportunity. He served in the Reserves for five years and was working with the Red Sox during their spring training in 2012 when he received an urgent call from his unit commander with the news that he was being mobilized.
When Mark heard the word “mobilized” it echoed a couple of times in his and he felt a swimmy feeling, like in the movies. He recalls what followed:
“So I sat down and said, ‘Where?’ and he said, ‘Afghanistan.’ And I said, ‘Afghanistan, Iowa?’ And he said, ‘No . . . is there an Afghanistan, Iowa?’ And I said, ‘Well, I hope so!’ So, he started laughing and said, ‘No, this is coming.’ And I said, ‘Okay, Roger that.’
So when I got home at 11pm that night I said, ‘Honey, I have to talk to you.’ She sat bolt upright in bed, thinking something had gone wrong. I said, ‘I got a call from the Navy today.’ She said, ‘Where are you going?’ I said, ‘Afghanistan.’ And she said, ‘How long?’ And I said, ‘I think around a year.’
So we had our little emotional moment. And then she said, ‘Look, our kids are older now, and we’ve got a good network going. We can do this, we can get through this.’ She was a total iron woman about everything.”
Shaping up and shipping out
Mark completed spring training with the Red Sox that year. By fall he had packed his four allotted sea bags and headed to officer candidate school, which he describes as “kinda like basic training . . . learning how to tie my shoes the right way, and do everything else I had always neglected, and how to shoot.”
He found it funny being a doctor there because the drill sergeants would yell at them and they’d say, “Why is it that you doctors are always happy-go-lucky? I said, ‘Are you kidding me, man? I spend my whole life making decisions. I come down here and you guys tell me where to eat, what time to wake up, what to wear—this is like vacation; it’s fantastic!’ And they understood. They got it.”
After two months of training, Mark boarded a plane to Afghanistan. He found that being away from his family was incredibly hard. But even with all of his professional successes, he shares, “There is nothing professionally I’ll ever do that is as rewarding as what I was able to do there. That was just a fantastic group of people. It was very meaningful. It was very difficult.
It reminds anyone of why they got into medicine. At the end of the day it was you and your patient and trying to figure out how to help them. Sometimes it was a very extreme situation—someone had been shot up or blown up. Other times it was humanitarian. We had kids with hand deformities that we would go into villages and try to correct. Every day was challenging in one respect or another. At the end you just look back and think, ‘I don’t know how we accomplished all that.’
I wouldn’t say it was a great time because unfortunately your benefit was somebody else’s tragedy, but it was a very meaningful time.”
We won one today
One of Mark’s most significant experiences was providing care for a young boy who had bilateral thumb duplications. During his time in Afghanistan, Mark learned that any kind of deformity is a big deal because it could negatively effect someone’s whole life—“whether or not people will hire you or whether or not you can marry.” Mark says, “What we think of as cosmetic deformities actually become lifestyle deformities for them.”
The surgery to correct this condition was complicated, and too risky to perform because at that time the patient was only six months old. Mark told the boy’s father, “Your son is too small to tolerate the anesthesiology and the surgery, but I’m going to be here for a while so let’s get some meat on his bones and let him grow up a little bit and six months from now, he’ll probably be heavier and ready to go and we’ll do the surgery.”
Mark and his colleagues eventually performed the surgery at the recommended time. Just before Mark was scheduled to return to the US, the father gave him a handmade scarf and said, “My son is too young, but I’ll always make sure that he knows what the Americans did for him.” Mark says, “That was like, ‘Okay, we won one today.’ That was a really good day on the background of some days that we didn’t feel like we won.”
From the battle field to the operating table: lessons learned
Mark returned home and resumed his medical practice. He found that his time in Afghanistan, while challenging, had taught him to take everything in stride.
“You definitely don’t sweat the small stuff. We were in some bad situations over there. We had been ambushed from a village so at this point in my life I’d been shot at, blown up, mortared, IEDed, or at least nearby, so when you’re in an operating room here at MGH and something goes wrong, you know no one’s going to blow you up, so it’s probably going to be okay.
And you learn a lot more about sticky situations. If you get into trouble in the operating room, which sometimes happens, you realize that it’s not as bad as trouble you’ve been in before, so you’ll probably get out of this, too. It increases your confidence, it increases your calm. It can’t help but make you appreciate things more like time with your family. It changes you in very fundamental ways.
I don’t pretend that my experience as a member of the military was typical—it was very, very different than other members’, because when I got to go there, it was to help other people, so I wasn’t faced with the same trauma and difficult choices that other people were. I had the benefit of seeing more of the good side of things than the bad side of things.”
Sports medicine under the microscope
Before he went to Afghanistan, Mark’s work with professional sports teams had been a side job. That changed in 2015 when the Patriot’s Medical Director, Dr. Matthew Provencher, invited Mark to become a Team Physician. Mark says, “Matt was also a Navy guy, and he and I get along exceedingly well. He asked if I’d consider coming out and helping and I said sure. And then Matt, for a host of reasons, took a job in Colorado and I got bumped up to the big boy chair.”
Mark went from being Team Physician to Head Team Physician and Medical Director in a little more than a year. The public nature of athletic medical practice is one of the challenging aspects of his new role. He says, “I’m not used to having surgeries that I’ve done being discussed in the newspaper. I take patient confidentiality very seriously. And so when someone has an injury and then suddenly it’s on Twitter and all over the place, and I know I didn’t tell anybody about it . . . I hate that stuff. Things like that definitely change the dimension of the job. And it doesn’t make it better or worse—it makes it different.”
But this is truly Mark’s dream job, and the people he works with make it all worthwhile. “The team is an incredibly excellent group,” he says. “From the athletes to the ownership, coaching staff, to the medical assistants. There’s not a single person there that isn’t pulling in the completely right direction. You get caught up in the slipstream of everybody doing a good job. It’s very analogous to what I experienced with the special operations guys in Afghanistan. You’ve got a great, hard-working, bright group all dedicated towards a good goal. It’s very busy work, but it is incredibly fun.”