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Few physicians can say they've landed an F-14 Tomcat aboard an aircraft carrier.

At night.

When it was snowing.

While the ship's deck was pitching amid 30- to 40-foot swells.

But Dr. James L. Sullivan - a fighter pilot turned physician - has done that and more. As a naval aviator, Sullivan had deployments to the Red and Adriatic seas. He escorted bombers during the first Gulf War.

He's had near-death experiences, yet Sullivan doesn't talk about those in his new office at Fremont Family Care.

Instead, the amiable husband and father of three focuses on similarities he sees between piloting and medicine. He tells how he wants to empower patients. And he frequently mentions how pleased he is to work with Fremont Area Medical Center.

Sullivan, who began working as a family practice physician in Fremont this month, is from New Berlin, Ill., a town of 813 people. As a child, Sullivan was captivated by crop dusters that flew across fields around his family's farm.

"I would sit on our two-story house rooftop and watch and they would buzz me when they saw me up there. I was hooked," he said.

Sullivan graduated with a degree in aeronautical and astronautical engineering from the University of Illinois in 1988.

Midway through college, Sullivan decided he wanted to fly the jets he'd be designing so he joined the U.S. Navy. He was stationed at Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach, Va. As an F-14 strike-fighter pilot, Sullivan was deployed on the USS John F. Kennedy and USS Dwight D. Eisenhower aircraft carriers.

He's had close calls.

"A lot of the close call stuff was carrier related," he said. "Landing an airplane on a boat is an inherently dangerous sport."

The most dangerous involved landing the Tomcat at night in 30-foot seas when it was snowing. At night, a pilot doesn't have the benefit of depth perception and if the moon isn't out he can't see the horizon.

He relies heavily on his aircraft's instruments.

"Your head tells you one thing, but the instruments say another so you're fighting with inner ears," he said.

To land, the pilot must snag the aircraft's tailhook on one of four arresting wires (sturdy cables) on the carrier. The pilot must simultaneously manage air speed, the lineup, angle of attack and rate of descent for the jet to be ideally positioned to catch the No. 3 wire.

It's not easy and Sullivan noted he's lost 13 good friends in aviation, non-combat-related accidents.

Sullivan was a pilot for eight years. He enjoyed the camaraderie of those with whom he flew. He liked serving his country, but opted not to make a career of the Navy.

"You don't fly as much as you climb the ladder," he noted.

Figuring he was young enough to start a new career, he decided to attend medical school when his Navy time was over. He joined the U.S. Air Force and received a scholarship and with his wife, Anne-Marie, moved to Minneapolis.

While taking prerequisite courses, he also became an ambulance driver and emergency medical technician. He graduated from the University of Minnesota Medical School and was accepted to the Air Force's three-year family medicine residency at Offutt Air Force Base.

In 2007, he was deployed as a physician to Baghdad.

"I was in much more danger as a physician than I ever was as a fighter pilot in Gulf War I," he said. "We were getting mortared daily in the Green Zone. I wore a sidearm at all times and traveling in convoys on the IED-laden roads in the Red Zone was much more dangerous than flying my Tomcat in 1991."

Sullivan worked closely with a brigadier general of the Iraqi Republican Guard, who was a tank commander in the first Gulf war.

"We laughed as we realized we were mortal enemies just 16 years prior and now we were sharing tea," he said.

Sullivan would receive a joint service commendation medal for his work as a diplomatic physician adviser to the Iraqi minister of health and minister of defense.

He was director of clinical research at The Asthma and Allergy Center in Papillion before the opportunity arose to come to Fremont.

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"I've always wanted to practice in a smaller community setting and to me this is one of the most unique places I've seen," he said. "It's under 100,000 people, but the hospital and medical community is very robust and active and vibrant. The hospital is great and state of the art. There are a lot of specialists out here."

Sullivan compares a primary care physician's job to a quarterback, who may send a patient to specialists, but manages the patient's entire program.

And although he no longer flies fighter planes, he sees similarities between his past and present professions.

"It takes a lot of training and preparation to get to where you need to be to perform the job and it takes years. You need a lot of attention to detail and intuitive situation awareness," he said.

Like pilots, physicians deal with the unexpected and must rely on their training for problem solving. Both must think on their feet and react to many variables at one time.

"You can read all you want in a book, but it's the actual practicing of the skill that makes you better," he said.

Since coming to Fremont, Sullivan has enjoyed working with staff at Fremont Family Care and has found fellow physician, Dr. Erin Cooper, to be very helpful and supportive. He enjoys the patients.

"I love the patients who are coming in," he said. "I like to empower patients with their health status. I want them to know why they're taking medications and understand what their disease states are. ... It's more of a partnership rather than me telling you what to do because it's good for you."

He emphasizes preventative medicine and notes his role as a teacher.

"Ninety percent of what I do is education and counseling," he said.

So what's on the horizon for Sullivan?

Sounds like he's happily grounded.

"I plan on being here forever," he said. "It's time to stay put."


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