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Fly The Ball

I had lunch with an extraordinary physician today. She came to the US from Pakistan 30 years ago with a medical degree, a little girl and a baby on the way. Since she was a foreign medical grad, she had to accept a position at a less competitive residency program in New York’s inner city (even more violent and dangerous then than now). She made it through, with several near muggings and death threats but longed to work at a hospital where she and her girls could be safe.

One day she came upon a large, clean naval hospital and on a whim decided to join the military so she could work there. She served for two decades as a navy physician, and learned many life lessons along the way.

As I hung on her every word, my friend told me about her experience with navy pilots. She said that one of the scariest maneuvers is landing a plane on a dark aircraft carrier on a rolling sea. The pilots dreaded these drills, and truth be told, the officers were more worried about losing a 3.2 million dollar jet to the ocean waves than the life of one of the pilots. “There will always be another pilot. They’re not in short supply. But the planes are expensive.” This was the attitude drilled into the young aviators.

In order to land the plane in the dark, the pilot had to learn to trust completely in his optical landing system. It more or less consists of a pin icon with a ball on top, and a series of red, yellow, and green lights. The goal is to keep the ball well centered so that it remains green for landing. Achieving this is called “flying the ball.” In total darkness with crashing waves and a rolling deck, a successful arrested landing is difficult and perilous.

As I looked at my friend, a petite and beautiful woman, I tried to imagine what life was like for her as a young Pakistani resident – pregnant and alone in a concrete jungle filled with graffiti, trash, and drug addicts. Her life has been an incredible journey with ups and downs, and amazing success against all odds.

“How did you do it?” I asked her, shaking my head. “How did you get where you are today through all that adversity?”

She paused for a moment, then grinned slowly as she replied: “I learned how to fly the ball.”This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at

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2 Responses to “Fly The Ball”

  1. rlbates says:

    What a nice story, Dr. Val!  Wish I had a mentor to teach me “how to fly the ball”, don’t you?

  2. ValJonesMD says:

    Yeah… getting good at it requires practice. So we endure hardship as discipline, knowing that each dark ocean swell makes us better pilots. Trick is not to crash the plane!

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