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Chris Varani

March 2017 - Chris Varani remembers a moment in Afghanistan when he knew exactly what he wanted from his career.

He had received a panicked call from a fellow service member asking for air support because the team was under fire.

“Those were my favorite missions to fly,” the former Air Force fighter pilot says. “It was dynamic and required that skills from all the other missions come together. You had to be on your game to make things work properly, and it was worthwhile to get that right. People on the ground appreciate it when you do things properly.”

The challenge came in translating that perfect job to civilian life after he’d tired of deployments away from family  including four combat missions – two to Iraq and two to Afghanistan.

After shadowing physicians in Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England, and Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, Varani, an aerospace engineering major, began bringing his organic chemistry textbooks with him on deployment.

“Medicine goes to that same emotional reward and the same challenges, and there is some stress involved. I don’t want to just sit at a desk … I hate to be bored.”

While still in the military he completed a Master of Business Administration degree, and then after leaving the Air Force with 11 years of service, he earned a master’s degree in finance.

Medicine remained his ultimate goal, but he believed that learning more about business would help him achieve his dreams.

“As a career, finance doesn’t have the same rewards,” Varani, a 39-year-old Boulder native, says. “But I want to go into administration eventually and work as a liaison between doctors and the administrative side of things. At that point I can help more patients at once. I can help an entire community.”

He received on-the-job training after making a connection with the director of Physicians Ally Inc., a Littleton company specializing in credentialing, billing and contract negotiations. She was a speaker in the health administration course he took in the final semester of the finance master’s degree program.

“She said doctors don’t know what they need to know to handle the business of medicine,” he says. “I called her up the next week and asked her ‘What am I supposed to know?’”

She hired him as a project manager, and he worked part-time through medical school. While there, Varani helped create a compliance book for clinics that includes rules for Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Sunshine Act, human resources, risk mitigation and fraud prevention.  

His background in the military and finance convinced him that the current hierarchal system that puts physicians in charge of patient care while relegating other health care professionals to a secondary role doesn’t work.

“When I took my jet into aircraft maintenance, I could tell the guys to fix my jet a certain way but at the end of the day they knew that jet better than I did. I outranked them but I wasn't going to get anywhere without their help and expertise. It was really better if I just said ‘Let me buy you a Coke.’”

He had the opportunity to test those beliefs as the care coordination leader at the student-run DAWN Clinic, which he says was one of his favorite parts of medical school.

“You have all these different health care workers with different personalities and slightly different motivations and different backgrounds. If you’re a dental student you’re passionate about dental health. That’s your focus. But how do we get you to play with a physical therapy student who naturally is more focused on movement and how to get around. Compare that with another student who is concerned about diabetes because diabetes was covered in his latest class.”

Despite his assumption that he would enter emergency medicine, Varani, who will serve his residency at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, chose anesthesiology as his specialty, partly because it felt so similar to those flight operations in the Air Force.

 “You’re the one who goes in and makes sure to mitigate risks. You take care of them as a patient, not just as a problem … And I like the feel of anesthesia. It felt like being in a cockpit.

 “I think regardless of the training I’ve received here in medical school, I’m still a fighter pilot. Now it’s just a matter of trying to apply it to a different world.”