By Katie Lange | US Department of Defense
As a child, Navy Capt. Lynelle Boamah always wanted to be a doctor, but she never pictured that she would one day be advising military leaders on the health and wellness of an entire region of troops.
Boamah, 53, is the U.S. Third Fleet surgeon, meaning she currently consults the San Diego-based fleet’s leadership on all things medical.
Before taking that role, the board-certified pediatric gastroenterologist was the first Black female Medical Corps commanding officer to lead the Navy Medical Readiness and Training Command in Twentynine Palms, California, and direct its Robert E. Bush Naval Hospital.
Prior to that, she was the executive officer of the hospital ship USNS Mercy.
But Boamah’s 27-year journey to get where she is now wasn’t easy. On top of medical school being incredibly difficult, she didn’t come from a family of means.
Boamah, who grew up in Baltimore, said her family was homeless at one point and that she lost her father to gun violence.
People also often told her as a child and a medical student that she would never become a doctor. “There are a lot of dream smashers out there,” she said.
So, what kept her going? Internal fortitude, a lot of great mentors, and some encouragement from her sister to join the Navy.
Boamah said she came from a poor family but was helped by college mentors who visited her high school. “We wanted to get out of the neighborhoods that we were in and take advantage of all the opportunities,” Boamah said. “But there were tons of obstacles.”
“At one point, we were homeless,” she continued. “That was at the time I was getting my med school application together, and all of our stuff got put out on the street. It was insane.”
She said her internal drive and her mother kept her going. “Watching my mom raise us by herself … she was a tough lady. She would encourage my crazy idea that I wanted to leave this place and grow up to be a doctor,” Boamah said.
Boamah was the valedictorian of her high school class, but she said being a doctor was still considered an outrageous idea.
“No one that we knew — at least in our immediate family, my siblings included — had gone to college,” she said. “My father was shot and killed in Baltimore when I was in college, and I never got to develop a relationship with him in my adult years.”
She went to medical school by joining the Navy.
After graduating from Notre Dame of Maryland University, Boamah took a year off to work in a genetics lab at Johns Hopkins University. During that time, her sister, a Navy sailor, encouraged her to join, too. So, Boamah enlisted in the Medical Corps and was able to attend medical school at the University of Maryland.
“I was a civilian medical student on a Navy Health Professions Scholarship. Those are really great opportunities for people like me who came from ‘disadvantaged’ backgrounds to be sponsored to go to professional school,” Boamah said. “They covered all of my tuition and fees, and there was also a stipend with that for me to live near the school and pay rent.”
It’s a scholarship program that continues today. “Many of the physicians in the Navy currently on active duty came in through that program,” Boamah said. “They recruit from schools all over the country, and they send students who have the leadership potential — and of course, the academics — who want to serve.”
Boamah was placed on active reserve until she was sworn into the service as a lieutenant the day she received her degree in 1995.
“The Navy has medical centers and graduate medical education programs that come up under the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education. We train recent med school grads to be doctors and surgeons. That’s like everywhere else in the country that trains their residents to be in a certain specialty,” Boamah said. “I started as a pediatric intern at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, which is now Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.”
It took her a while to find her footing, but she had good mentors to help.
Boamah said she struggled at her internship and had a lot of confidence issues as she simultaneously acclimated to Navy life and working in medicine. One of her mentors, Cmdr. Al Twyman, helped her persevere.
“He helped me to realize that I really had to pull it together,” she said. “So, I lifted myself up, and from that day on, I have been hard-charging.”
Boamah did her pediatric residency at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth, Virginia. Her assignments then led her to Naval Hospital Twentynine Palms as a general pediatrician, then to Naval Medical Center San Diego as a graduate medical educator. About 10 years into her career, she switched course and took on a fellowship at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, where she became a pediatric gastroenterologist. During her time there, she was mentored by Dr. Sue Moyer.
“Sue was one of only two women in an all-male, very high-profile program — it’s one of the top three children’s hospitals in the country — and she was one of the few women in her specialty in inflammatory bowel disease,” Boamah said. “Sue was a tough, tough lady. You got to pick a mentor when you were a fellow, and I said, ‘I want her!'”
She experienced two humbling deployments with the USNS Mercy.
Boamah did two five-month deployments on the hospital ship USNS Mercy, one of which was as its executive officer in 2018. The trips were part of Pacific Partnership, the largest annual multinational humanitarian assistance and disaster relief preparedness mission conducted in the Indo-Pacific.
“We worked inter-operably with our foreign allies and partners in their country, with our staff and their medical staff working side by side,” Boamah said. “One of the main missions of the hospital ship was to help [those countries] identify their vulnerabilities and plan for disasters because that part of the world is very [volatile]. Most of the countries are within the Ring of Fire, so they’ve got typhoon, earthquake and tsunami risks.”
She said it was an eye-opening experience. “I remember feeling in awe of the exquisite clinical acumen of the doctors in those countries who may not have all of the technology we do here. I was also impressed with the amount of patience that the patients have with their providers,” Boamah said. “The humility that was there amongst the people, the doctors, etc. — it was very humbling.”
Another thing she was impressed by was their pride and resilience.
“When we were doing hip and knee replacements on the ship, the people of Vietnam — their elderly came onboard, and they left with a new set of hips. And you won’t believe it when I tell you that they walked off the ship,” she said. “We had to get them in a wheelchair to roll them down just by protocol, but they were like, ‘No, no, no, we walk off.'”
One of her favorite experiences was as a barrier-breaking leader.
“I think one of the coolest things was … being commanding officer at Robert E. Bush Naval Hospital. I used to call it the best kept secret in Navy medicine. That was the place that the Navy sent me right out of residency when I was a wet-behind-the-ears pediatrician, very nervous and very new,” Boamah said. “Then to go back there 20-21 years later as the commanding officer of that hospital was just unreal. I had the opportunity to give back all of the things that were given to me to create an environment where people at my command could thrive and be their best selves and have someone believe in them — none of this dream squashing.”
She said while many people made a big deal of her becoming the first Black female commanding officer in the Medical Corps, she was more curious about the reasons behind that.
“To be honest, I was kind of stunned that I’ve been the only one,” she said, questioning whether it had to do with the struggles of balancing a career with family life. “It’s not easy being on active-duty, especially if you’re a mom. There are a lot of temptations to get out of the military so that you can properly take care of your family. During the time that I was in Twentynine Palms as the hospital CO, I was there by myself for two years. I drove home [to San Diego] on weekends and holidays and whenever I had a little bit of vacation time.”
She doesn’t think she would have had the same opportunities outside of the military.
“No way. Definitely not,” Boamah said, citing the military’s leadership opportunities. “The Navy will put you out on the waterfront on a ship in charge of all things medical, like on an aircraft carrier. You could be in a leadership position over an entire air wing as a medical flight officer or flight surgeon. Or you can be like me, the executive officer of an almost 700-foot hospital ship. And that just doesn’t happen anywhere else.”
“As medical professionals in the Navy, we have an opportunity to showcase the face of America to our partners and allies — even to our enemies,” she continued. “I know I would have had a great career if I had been in the civilian sector — it just would have been different and nothing like the opportunities that you have to serve humanity in uniform.”
She’s passing on what she’s learned to others.
“I mentor inside and outside of the Navy,” Boamah said. “I think that sometimes [sailors] might be shy to come up and ask because, at some point, rank can be a barrier to people opening themselves up to you. So, I will reach out to young women and young men from all walks of life. Just because I’m an African American woman, I’m not looking to just mentor people who look like me — that’s not what we’re called to do. So, I’m bringing up people who are like-minded or who I can see that spark in.”
And she still has big dreams for herself.
“One of the things that I would love to do once I have a little more time is to have a nonprofit to help kids develop their dreams,” she said. “That’s one of my passions, to help encourage and inspire others like people believed in me.”
She wants to remind medical students there are great military options available.
“I want them to know that there are many, many opportunities for professional growth and development in our military and within military medicine, specifically in the Navy,” she said, citing the degrees she earned through her service.
“I was able to become a program director of a residency program, which is something that easily translates to the civilian sector. I also got to be a chief executive officer of a hospital and the chief operating officer of a hospital ship. So, you can join the Navy and see the world, but then you can also join the Navy and be a leader if you’re up to the challenge,” Boamah continued. “The thing [students] need to know is you’re not just going to be serving — you’re going to be learning and growing as a professional and working within a diverse organization.”
She’s got advice for teens who, like her, have big dreams but difficult means to achieve them.
Boamah stressed that students should take advantage of opportunities offered at school. “Growing up, I didn’t have someone who I could easily go up to and say, ‘Could you help me figure this out?’ I had nothing for a while. So, what you do is take advantage of the opportunities to have college counseling and, really, life coaching at school. There are some real diamonds in the rough [working] in schools, especially in public schools, which is where I went,” she said. “Just like we’re serving in the military, they’re serving their communities.”
She said online coaching and public service organizations are also vital assets to exposing students to career opportunities. But it also comes down to motivation.
“You have to make the best of it, wherever you are. You just have to look,” she said. “A lot of times, it’s sitting right there in front of them, but the kids don’t want to see it, or they don’t have the motivation to do it. They’ve got to have that.”
And when life gets tough, keep moving forward. “You have to get back up and dust yourself off and use that to climb up higher and keep going,” she said. “It’s not easy, and I know I make it sound like it is, but there are a lot of long days and tough nights.”
Nowadays, Boamah and her husband, who she met during her pediatric residency in Portsmouth, enjoy watching their four children grow into scholars and athletes — including a son who followed in her footsteps.
“My son is now a midshipman at the Naval Academy,” Boamah said. “He loves being in the Navy. It’s all he talks about.”