Mary Maniscalco-Theberge

Former cheerleader oversees staff of 500 as first female chief of surgery at Walter Reed

By Elizabeth O. Cooper

If Mary Maniscalco-Theberge had listened to a classmate during her surgical training, she probably never would have climbed the military’s career ladder to become the first female chief of surgery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

Now a colonel in the U.S. Army, Maniscalco-Theberge ’78 is used to being a trailblazer in a profession dominated by men. “During my five years of surgical training I was the only woman in the program,” she recalls. “When I was a fourth-year resident, a classmate told me the only place a woman belonged in the operating room was on the table.”

However, she also remembers the words of another male classmate: “He told me he was proud of me, and if he had to live my experience he would have quit.”

While her gender was an issue 20 years ago, these days it’s little more than a footnote. She asserts that being a female doesn’t lead to special challenges in her job. Selected as the medical center’s chief of surgery in 2001, the Norfolk native was previously the first woman chief of general surgery at Walter Reed. She currently oversees 13 services and 500 staff members, sees patients, spends a day each week in the OR and endeavors to create a support structure for surgeons, while ensuring that operating rooms run efficiently and at full capacity.

“The opportunities are there. If you work hard, they will allow you to step up to the plate,” Maniscalco-Theberge says, noting that there are now at least a half dozen women in Walter Reed’s surgical residency program. “Being a woman in a surgical program today is a non-issue. The generation behind me grew up with women doing everything.”

Doing everything is an apt description for Maniscalco-Theberge’s life from the time she set foot on the Old Dominion campus in 1974. She was one of four freshmen awarded Dominion Scholarships, a distinction that had already established her at the top of the academic echelon, when she was invited to an Army ROTC recruiting party. Intrigued by the ROTC’s scholarship program, she decided to check it out and joined the second semester of her freshman year. It was the second year women were allowed in the ROTC, and she was one of six female cadets.

“It was a lot of fun,” Maniscalco-Theberge says of her Army ROTC days, adding that her gender never seemed to be a problem. “The Corps of Cadets was relatively small. When I started, there were about 45 people, but when I finished, it was over 220. It was like a club atmosphere in the sense that everyone had a common goal and was working toward the same thing. There were a lot of good people.”

Her stint in the Corps of Cadets was capped off when she became the first female Army ROTC battalion commander her senior year. “There was a pause like, ‘You know, we’ve never had a female battalion commander,’” she says.

Aside from ROTC, Maniscalco-Theberge focused on her career goal of becoming a physician. Lewis S. Keyes, associate professor emeritus of chemistry and biochemistry, was her premed adviser and suggested she major in chemistry because few medical students major in that field. He reasoned that she would stand out in the competition for medical school slots, and she agreed. Maniscalco-Theberge’s aptitude for chemistry paid off, earning her both acceptance to Eastern Virginia Medical School, as well as the title of Outstanding Chemistry Student in Hampton Roads during her senior year at Old Dominion.

“I had a fabulous time in the chemistry department. There were 12 graduates in chemistry in 1978. It was very family-like and very supportive.”

When she wasn’t marching with the Corps of Cadets or toiling away in the chemistry lab, Maniscalco-Theberge could be found in the Fieldhouse leading cheers for the Monarchs’ basketball teams. A cheerleader since junior high school, she served as captain of Old Dominion’s squad her senior year.

“That’s three very distinct groups of people I hung out with,” Maniscalco-Theberge says, laughing. Combining all three activities required excellent time management skills, she acknowledged.

Despite the significant roles that the Army and chemistry would play in her life’s work, Maniscalco-Theberge admits that cheerleading was her favorite collegiate activity. “It was a very exciting time to be involved in Old Dominion basketball. We won the Division II men’s national championship my freshman year, and women’s basketball took off. It made a great diversion.”

Maniscalco-Theberge’s cheerleading days were somewhat marred when she broke three bones in her back while performing a routine during her junior year, an accident that forced her to stay out of school five weeks. She says her Army ROTC superiors encouraged her to be careful after the trauma, but they remained supportive of their model cadet’s cheerleading. “They probably realized it was a good recruiting tool.”

A month after graduating from Old Dominion in May 1978, Maniscalco-Theberge entered EVMS, where she studied nonstop for three years. “It was a good way to get on with your life,” she says of her whirlwind medical school days.

When it came time to start her clinical rotation, she was convinced that she did not want to be a surgeon. “Surgery was a very difficult lifestyle. It’s draining and intense, and not many women were in it.”

To get her dreaded surgical rotation out of the way, she chose it as her first stop, but soon realized that despite the drawbacks, she was meant to be a surgeon. Maniscalco-Theberge entered a five-year surgical training program at Eisenhower Army Medical Center in Fort Gordon, Ga., where she spent 120 to 140 hours a week on the job. But it wasn’t all work and no play – she met her husband, Daniel, who was studying to become an oral and maxifacial surgeon.

Maniscalco-Theberge recalls a date to grill steaks with her future husband that was interrupted when she was called back to the hospital. When she returned home it was almost midnight, but they decided to get together anyway and have a late dinner. “I thought, ‘This is a guy who could fit in with my lifestyle,’” she says.

The couple are the parents of Matthew, 14, and Danielle, 10, neither of whom, incidentally, has expressed any interest as yet in either the Army or the medical profession.

While juggling her career and family life, Maniscalco-Theberge honed her skills during a trauma fellowship at the Washington Hospital Center and a surgical critical care fellowship at Walter Reed. She has also been an attending general surgeon at Frankfurt Army Regional Medical Center in West Germany, consultant to the surgeon general for critical care and director of the surgical intensive care unit and chief of surgery for the 85th General Hospital. She has received the Meritorious Service Medal on four occasions, the Army Commendation Medal three times, the Army Achievement Medal three times and the Order of Military Medical Merit.

It was while she was working on triage and resuscitation teams in Frankfurt that Maniscalco-Theberge said she came to realize the hatred many internationals have for Americans. “There was a lot of local trauma against Americans in the mid-1980s in Europe,” she says. “We were acutely aware of the threats against America and wanted to be prepared for what was to come.”

Still, nothing could prepare her for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Her command at Walter Reed met as soon as the second tower of the World Trade Center was hit to determine which personnel would be sent to New York. Then, one of the hijacked planes struck the Pentagon. “Within minutes of the Pentagon attack, we set up an emergency operations center,” she said. “We had a 10-day ongoing mission to aid and recover bodies. Then we were involved in the anthrax attacks as a testing facility.”

She adds that it was heartening to see how quickly everyone in her command mobilized for action. “It’s also given a renewed sense of patriotism to the country. I’ve always been proud to be in the Army, and it’s nice to see patriotism spread across the country.”

Ever since war with Iraq began looming on the horizon, much of Maniscalco-Theberge’s job has dealt with preparing for the hospital’s wartime mission. “It would be wonderful if we could come up with a peaceful solution to that problem,” she says, adding that she has friends currently serving in Afghanistan. “It’s a very personal issue for me, and I have very mixed emotions. Our country needs to do something to get control of the whole concept of terrorism against us. It makes me very anxious.”

Maniscalco-Theberge’s current career plans call for her to retire from active duty next year and perhaps enter a practice focusing on breast surgery. “Depending on how things are going and how much fun I’m having, I may stay,” she says, noting that she rates her current position very high in terms of total job satisfaction. “I’m in a position to actually impact things I’ve complained about in the past. It’s an absolutely wonderful privilege that people allow you to take their lives in your hands and, hopefully, to improve their lives.”