Camas doctor earns her stripes

Physician juggles civilian practice with role as flight surgeon with Air National Guard Fighter Wing

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

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Dr. Heidi Kjos has diagnosed tummy aches and pulled nine G's in an F-15 fighter.

She has treated ear infections and prepared an astronaut for a space shuttle launch.

She has encouraged patients to get regular exercise and took part in an investigation she calls "CSI: Air Force."

As you might guess, Kjos has a couple of different medical practices going. In her civilian life, the Camas doctor is a family physician.

In her other role, she is Lt. Col. Heidi Kjos, a flight surgeon with the Oregon Air National Guard's 142nd Fighter Wing, based in Portland.

It can be quite a juggle, Kjos said recently in her office in the Providence Camas Medical Plaza, 3101 S.E. 192nd Ave. "I just missed a week of work for a big military exercise, but my patients are pretty tolerant."

The two jobs also can include different approaches to her patients. Treating kids doesn't mean Kjos has to catch chicken pox, but caring for fighter pilots requires an understanding of their on-the-job stresses. That's why Kjos occasionally rides along when F-15 pilots practice making air combat turns at nine times the force of gravity.

"We feel that," Kjos said. "If we fly with them, we understand mission systems and tactics. If there are oxygen problems, we've used oxygen. Until you've flown, you don't understand the fatigue."

Most of her medical career has been in the Air Force, where Kjos was on active duty from 2000 to 2010. That goes back to her medical school education at the University of Minnesota, which was financed by the military.

The Minnesota native had planned to serve four years in the Air Force and then get out, she said. "But I liked it."

In September 2010, she moved to Camas to join her husband, Maj. David Christensen, an F-15 pilot with the 142nd Fighter Wing.

Her active-duty postings -- including assignments in Japan, Germany and Qatar -- provided some memorable medical opportunities, Kjos said.

While stationed in Japan from 2002-2004, "I did typhoon relief in Guam," Kjos said. "It was around Christmas. I was getting ready to go to a Christmas party and got the message to go to Guam. Part of a hospital was knocked out, and we set up a mobile hospital in the parking lot."

She also provided medical care for a mission to Laos, where a team searched for the remains of U.S. soldiers killed during the Vietnam War.

"We brought back the remains of two people. That was very gratifying," Kjos said.

Her 2004-2006 assignment at Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany included a four-month deployment in Qatar, transporting injured soldiers.

And while in Germany, she went to Lithuania as part of a NATO mission at an old Soviet air base.

"I did public health and water testing, inspected food supplies, in addition to seeing what the hospital resources were," she said.

She even made sure the ambulance dispatchers could speak English.

While stationed at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida from 2006-2010, Kjos did a stint as a NASA flight surgeon. She participated in an Endeavour space shuttle mission, STS-123, in March 2008.

Kjos also took part in an accident investigation board in 2008, following the crash of an F-15 Eagle that killed one of its two pilots.

"The Air Force puts a pilot, a doctor, a maintenance person, and others on an investigation board to see what happened -- and how to prevent it," Kjos said.

She referred to the experience as "CSI: Air Force." According to an Associated Press story, the board found imperfections in the F-15's nose cone and an imbalance in the two external fuel tanks hindered the pilot as he tried to recover from a violent spin.

While the aerospace setting brings some high-tech aspects to the job of flight surgeon, Kjos said it has a lot in common with her civilian practice.

"My day-to-day job was doing family practice for pilots and their families. It's a quintessential family practice," Kjos said.

"When you deploy groups of between 100 and 300 people, it's like caring for a small town: heart attacks to colds to trauma."

Tom Vogt: 360-735-4558; http://www.twitter.com/col_history; tom.vogt@columbian.com.