The Most Important Mission

“It’s an American story.” That’s how David Parramore ’88 began when asked about his childhood in the 1970s. The son of a roofer and a school nurse, Parramore describes his parents as “blue collar patriots” who instilled military values in him early: “Honor God, honor your country, and respect authority.”

He graduated from high school expecting to enlist in the military, following in the footsteps of his father, who served in the US Air Force during the Cold War in the ’60s. But “through a turn of events,” he discovered Cairn University (at that time, Philadelphia College of Bible) and became the first in his family to attend college, intending to become a pastor. A biblical studies degree didn’t meet the criteria for tuition benefits through the Army ROTC program he joined at nearby Rider University, so he funded his education by signing up for the Army Reserves and a six-year active duty commitment.

After those six years, Parramore thought, he would enter full-time ministry. Commissioned as a second lieutenant, Parramore retired from the US Army as a colonel — twenty-six years later.

Nearly three decades after graduating, Parramore returned to Cairn last April — this time, to speak with business students about his experience as an award-winning leader in medical information technology, both as a chief information and technology officer for the Army and now at IBM. Along the way, he earned one of the military’s highest honors, the Bronze Star, as well as nearly a dozen others.

Service, Not War Stories

One might wonder if 30 years, two master’s degrees, a slew of awards, and life on four continents has distanced Parramore from his time studying Bible at Cairn. But speaking with students in a class taught by Yunn Kang, dean of the School of Business, he seemed quite at home.

Parramore’s story resonated with students wrestling with uncertainty about their calling. “If you don’t know what to do, pick a direction as best you can, based on how you’re led at that moment. Then, every day, do well at what you do. My dark years were the ones where I was trying to manipulate my circumstances, striving for that next promotion, trying to ‘get somewhere.’ Today, it’s really about ‘How can I help people?’”

This commitment to service was evident throughout Parramore’s visit. During his presentation, he asked students at least as many questions as they asked him. Over lunch, he handed out his business card to students who wanted him to provide feedback on their resumes. He offered to do mock interviews. He redirected requests for “war stories,” telling students “I could talk about me, but I’d really like to solve a problem that you have.”

That’s not to say that war stories aren’t something Parramore could have provided in abundance. “When my friends were on summer mission trips, I was doing pushups at Fort Benning,” he explained. “I went to Airborne School in 1986, the same year that Top Gun came out. I was jumping out of planes after my junior year.” After a post-graduation assignment in San Antonio, Parramore was deployed to Iraq during the Gulf War to set up and operate a combat support hospital. When he returned, he attended flight school and became a medical evacuation pilot, flying in Costa Rica, El Salvador, Panama, Columbia, Honduras, Venezuela, and Korea.

Medical evacuation is “a very important mission,” he explained, “because when you get the call to transport a critically injured patient, you’re already late. They already desperately need you to transport them to the next level of care. And it’s quite possible that it’s not in the most ideal conditions. We often flew in adverse weather — or nighttime, of course; that’s when the military’s training or fighting. I would quite often find myself jolted from a dead sleep to hovering on the side of a mountain in 10 minutes, picking up a patient and taking them to the hospital.”

Privately, he did recount one “war story” to Cairn Magazine: a four-helicopter response to the Vargas mudslides in Venezuela in 1999. “We were flying over Panama overnight when the storm hit. We flew in headwinds for hours. Still over the water, we were running out of fuel. In those conditions, no one can come get you. In those two days, I almost lost my life four times.”

In high-pressure moments like that, he says, “I had comfort, because I’d built that faith-based foundation at Cairn. When our helicopters got separated, I felt some comfort knowing that at least one of the other pilots was a believer.”

Such situations also created opportunities to share with his fellow servicemen. “You have these senior officers, and of course they’re still just people. A lot of rank, a lot of medals, and still unsaved, broken people. They need help; they need faith. And it was important to me to have that opportunity to share what I learned here.”

a chip on my shoulder

When students asked him what he would change, looking back on his career, Parramore was quick to encourage them: “Own that you got your degree here.” During the first decade of his professional life, Parramore struggled with defensiveness when jibed about his Bible degree by fellow officers. “The joke was, ‘Well, when your science fails, then that’s when my degree comes into play.’ But I really did have a chip on my shoulder. My peers had graduated from schools like West Point and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University; I felt like I had something to prove.”

That attitude shifted in 2000, when Parramore was selected to pursue fully-funded graduate studies in the emerging field of healthcare information technology. “When I started classes at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, my first thought was ‘This is easy.’ I was in one of the top 10 information science programs in the nation, and I realized that I was able to compete on the level of anyone there. My Bible classes at Cairn were 100% harder and more rigorous. I remember a Daniel-Revelation course final that was three questions long — we wrote for two and-a-half hours. Nothing in grad school came close to that.”

continuous care

With his MS in Information Science in hand, Parramore’s first assignment in medical IT was to implement the first-ever Electronic Health Record (EHR) in combat. As Chief Information Officer for the 44th medical command in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2004, he oversaw the transition from paper medical files to electronic records that could be accessed anywhere in the world. The shift made it possible for soldiers to receive continuous care as they traveled from the battlefield to US hospitals.

The need for this kind of continuous care has grown as war has evolved. “In World War II, we had more medical forces on the front lines,” Parramore explained, an approach that was expensive, resource-intensive, and dangerous. “Now we no longer even have those traditional front lines. Our target insurgents aren’t in uniform; their ‘battlefields’ of choice are too often schools, churches, marketplaces.” In addition, soldiers today experience injuries — like missing limbs — that require more complex care coordination.

Parramore’s task was to begin building the technical infrastructure for seamless communication among medical staff along the 8000-mile journey from the battlefield to home — in a setting where “even reliable electrical power was an issue, the internet network could go down at any time… and, oh yeah, you’re getting shot at.”

To further complicate matters, the EHR system was fully dependent on satellite internet service: “Every time you’d try to set up a [internet] tower, someone would blow it up.” They also faced the bandwidth problems of the early 2000s. “Today in the US, we take unlimited bandwidth for granted; in theater [of war], you don’t have that luxury. We had to find creative ways to move massive amounts of data through ‘small pipes.’”

Today, electronic health records are an essential part of the United States’ highly efficient military medical evacuation system, contributing to the highest soldier survivability rate in the history of the world.

But upon returning to the States in 2005 as the Director of Warfighter Readiness and assistant secretary to the CIO of Military Medicine, Parramore still had “unfinished business,” eliminating remaining inefficiencies by connecting systems overseas with systems stateside. “As a former medevac pilot, I’d gotten a bird’s-eye view of the entire medical evacuation system — no pun intended. I got to see the healthcare system operate from Step 1.”

His experiences back home also informed his mission to create a streamlined system of continuous care. “When I came stateside, there was no transfer of the Electronic Health Record from the DoD [Department of Defense] to the VA. I had to print out a single-side paper copy of my entire medical history to sign up for VA healthcare, and I thought, ‘There has got to be a better way.’ I carried that pile of papers around with me as a prop for a long time, meeting with legislators and others involved with improving the process.” In 2007, he co-authored a report for the President’s Commission on Care for America’s Wounded Warrior, triggering landmark efforts between the Department of Defense and the VA to integrate processes and support data-sharing initiatives.

CRITICAL THINKING

In 2008, Parramore was promoted to another overseas position: CIO for Europe Regional Medical Command, leading healthcare IT for 20 clinics in four countries. Among these was the famous Landstuhl Regional Medical Center — the stopover point for all injured soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan, where they must be stabilized before the eight-hour Transatlantic flight to US hospitals. It’s known as the “8000-mile operating room.”

In many ways, the job was no less stressful than flying medical evacuation. “At that level, one outage can cost millions of dollars — and, more importantly, people’s lives.”

As epic as it sounds, the job itself was unglamorous — one of Parramore’s major accomplishments was standardizing desktop images across all his clinics, streamlining troubleshooting, and saving time at the help desk. Another major accomplishment was standardizing the wireless network, so that when staff traveled from one clinic to another, their laptops’ internet connection “just worked.”

“These were business problems, not IT problems. I didn’t need a master’s degree in information science to solve them. I solved them with the critical thinking skills I learned here [at Cairn],” he explained. “When I first started, I called up another CIO that I knew and asked for his advice. I quickly realized that I didn’t have to talk to a Top 100 CIO to learn this… I had learned it at Cairn. It’s about talking to people, finding out what interests them, what they need, how you can help them.

“Instead of needing to go first to Bible college to develop a biblical worldview, then go on to business school, at Cairn you can get both and serve very well in industry. When Cairn provided me that faith-based foundation, an important aspect of that was critical thinking, wise ways of thinking that transfer from biblical courses to leadership and industry. Today, I’m impressed to see how Cairn has expanded that biblical foundation  into other academic programs.”

This business sense eventually landed Parramore a position as Health Information Management Consultant to the Army Surgeon General and Chief Technology Officer at Army Medicine — a $10 billion health care business serving nearly 4 billion beneficiaries: active-duty members of all services, retirees, and their family members. Then he served as Chief Research and Development Officer for Health IT in the Innovation and Advanced Technology Development Division.

Then, he felt called to make a change.

lOOKING FOR THE NEXT GOLIATH

Now in his late 40s, Parramore briefly attempted to return to his original gameplan of pastoral ministry and enrolled in seminary studies. However, several factors gave him the clear impression that full-time ministry was not his calling. “In one particular incident, I was traveling in Europe on break. At a rest stop, someone punched a hole in the back window of the vehicle we were traveling in and stole my backpack — with an entire semester’s homework stored on the hard drive.” Redirected, Parramore concluded that his calling was still to the business world and the broken people he encounters there.

He sought employment in a field that combined his expertise in medical technology and a personal passion for wellness. Shortly after earning his degree from UNC, Parramore began competing in endurance sports. “I was always looking for my next Goliath,” he says, describing his participation in events including the Ironman Hawaii Triathlon World Championship, European cycling events such as the Tour of Flanders and the Paris-Roubaix Challenge, and Ironcross, America’s longest cyclocross race.

Despite intense physical training, “I was in the unhealthiest period of my life, actually,” he says. A turning point came when he switched to a plant-based diet shortly before his retirement from the military in 2014. A new awareness of the impact of daily decisions on long-term wellness informs his first civilian position as Strategic Health Initiatives Director at US Federal Software for IBM.

Through Federal Software, he continues to serve organizations such as the Department of Defence, the VA, and Social Security, but now deals with a very different type of medical crisis. “The US has a $3 trillion dollar healthcare industry, but the average American spends 22 minutes with his primary care physician each year. We’re 50th in worldwide health outcomes. A surgery in Germany costs half of what it does in the US; a prescription medication in India costs one-third of what it does here.”

Today, he seeks to improve the wellness of those he serves by promoting IBM’s groundbreaking technologies, ranging from cloud capabilities to big data analytics. During Parramore’s visit, business students had the opportunity to learn about the potential of big data analytic software to transform Americans’ approach to medicine and health. “The type of information that winds up in doctors’ clinical notes — problems that prompt you to go see the doctor — are only maybe 10% of what ultimately influences your health. Another 30% might be genetics. The other 60% are the day-to-day decisions that you make, your habits and your environment. A doctor alone can’t gather, analyze, and draw conclusions based on all that information in a 22-minute appointment. The right software, however, can completely change the way we approach health.”

The ability to transform a field — whether military medical evacuation overseas or the daily health of Americans stateside — relies on critical thinking and discernment. Transforming lives through relationship, whether in uniform or a business suit, relies on the work of the Holy Spirit and a biblical worldview. Thirty years after graduation, Colonel David Parramore credits all these qualities to his education at Cairn University.

“When I graduated high school, attending Cairn was the last thing on my mind… but as it turned out, it was the best thing that could have happened to me: just to get focused on a faith-based foundation, a biblical world- and life-view that has really served as my compass throughout the course of my career until now,” he says.

Today, Parramore proudly “owns” his Cairn background. Shortly before participating in this year’s Golf Classic fundraiser, he gladly accepted a nomination to the University’s Board of Trustees. Far from a single-day commitment, April’s campus visit was just the beginning of investing back into a place that shaped his unexpected career in indelible ways. Cairn is glad to welcome a new board member, eager to serve as a mentor to our students in the School of Business and beyond.

Hear more from David Parramore himself in Cairn10 podcast’s Episode 11.