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WVSOM alumnus turns tragic events into opportunity to serve others

LEWISBURG, W.Va. – To this day, Michael Peterson, D.O., tastes blood in his mouth during stressful situations.

Peterson is regional assistant dean for the South Central Region of the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine’s (WVSOM) Statewide Campus, where third- and fourth-year medical students complete clinical rotations. The South Central Region encompasses all of Kanawha, Boone, Logan and Mingo counties and parts of Fayette, Lincoln, Putnam and Wyoming counties.

A WVSOM Class of 2008 graduate, Peterson had a career in law enforcement before training to become an emergency medicine physician. Two violent incidents left him with post-traumatic stress disorder that continues to bring a metallic, salty taste during moments of anxiety, as if he’s reliving the events that brought a literal rush of blood to his mouth decades ago.

In 1989, while working as a police officer in Santa Rosa, Calif., Peterson sustained stab wounds to the head while chasing two suspects on foot. Emergency personnel were able to treat his injuries, and he made a full recovery.

Two years later, Peterson completed motorcycle enforcement training at the California Highway Patrol Academy in Sacramento. While on duty as an officer for the city of Santa Rosa, Peterson was cut off by an illegally turning asphalt truck during a high-speed chase. He hit the 40-ton vehicle’s rear wheels, throwing him from his bike and partially severing his right arm. Paramedics transported the critically injured patrolman to a trauma center, where physicians saved not only his arm, but his life.

The incident led to what Peterson called a “long, dark period.”

“I spent the next year and a half partially paralyzed in a hospital,” Peterson said. “I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life. I wasn’t scared until the day I was getting discharged, and then I was terrified.”

He began working for the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office, but during a vocational rehabilitation program, Peterson took an intelligence assessment and tested in a high percentile, qualifying him to attend college at no cost.

At Saint Mary’s College of California, he found his real-world experience gave him a head start in the sciences. Where most students learn theory before practical applications, this part of Peterson’s education took place in reverse.

“I had a background in reconstructing vehicular speeds from skid marks, which in physics is coefficient of friction analysis. I didn’t know that’s what I was doing, but it was. As I got into the sciences, I excelled. The course that hooked me was general chemistry, but the one that cemented my love for science was physics,” he said.

Peterson eventually relocated to West Virginia, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in medical science from Alderson Broaddus College before attending WVSOM on the recommendation of Class of 2001 alumnus Robert Snuffer, D.O. It was Snuffer — who in 2017 was named the WVSOM Alumni Association’s Distinguished Alumni of the Year — who discovered that Peterson was suffering from PTSD.

“I was sitting in Rob’s office one day, and he kept asking why I was spitting on the floor. I said, ‘I’m not.’ Through our conversation, we discovered that what I was doing was spitting out the blood that was in my mouth after the incidents when I was in law enforcement.”

Peterson said WVSOM proved to be the perfect fit for an aspiring physician whose prior experience made him anything but the average medical student.

“I was nontraditional, and I was rough around the edges, but I came here and just really connected with the school. That’s what inspired me to become a dean. I look at what WVSOM has given to me, and I want to pay it forward,” he said.

After earning his medical degree, Peterson completed an emergency medicine residency at Charleston Area Medical Center (CAMC). He began working as chief medical officer and medical director for the West Virginia-based critical care transport company HealthNet Aeromedical Services, a role he was prepared for following his years in public safety. He also served as a core faculty member in CAMC’s emergency medicine residency program.

Peterson worked with HealthNet for 12 years, leaving the organization in 2023 — about two years after joining WVSOM’s team of eight regional assistant deans. He said he sees the same sense of resilience that got him through his difficult recovery in many of the students who rotate in his Statewide Campus region.

“Our students put so much pressure on themselves to be perfect,” he said. “I worked as a field training officer, and one of the hardest things I had to teach people was how to fail. I tell students that it’s OK to fail. The question is, what are you going to do to overcome it and move forward?”

Peterson admires the medical students he works with for the sacrifices they make to lead lives of caring for others.

“I got to be young. I got to do a lot of crazy stuff. I rode a motorcycle for a living and had a gun on my hip,” he said. “These students didn’t get to be young. They gave up ages 18 to 22 to pursue the most difficult curriculum they could, then they get into medical school and they give up ages 22 to 26. Then they have residency, which is basically ages 26 to 30. Why do they do it? Because nobody else is coming. Because they are needed. It’s wonderful to have people like that still in this world.”

In the end, Peterson said, his story is one of grace and gratitude.

“God gave me the ability to speak a new language. It’s the language of time and mortality. When you understand time and mortality, it puts everything else in context. What I went through was horrible, but I’m thankful for the gifts that have come from it. I’ve gotten to do everything in my life I wanted to do, and I don’t know where I would be if it wasn’t for WVSOM.”