Meet our Docs: Neurologist Dr. David B. Wheeler, from high school dropout to a Ph.D.
By Kristy Bleizeffer May 22, 2019
David B. Wheeler, MD, PhD, FAAN, FAES, isn’t your average high school dropout.
After working several years at King’s Table Buffet, he got his GED, enrolled in college and became a Rhodes Scholar. He earned a medical degree from Stanford University along with a Ph.D. in neurosciences. In Casper, he’s built an expanding neurology practice, a Level III Epilepsy Center and WMC's Primary Stroke Center.
This month, the American Heart Association named him the 2019 Physician of the Year. Read more about that honor here.
We wanted to share Dr. Wheeler’s story now, as graduation speakers polish their speeches for the big ceremonies. His lesson: Education has the power to change the trajectory of a life, no matter how many or how long the detours along the way. Here, Dr. Wheeler tells us about finding his ambition, choosing a career that still blows him away and the satisfaction of telling Harvard University, “No, thank you.”
Tell us a little about yourself.
I grew up in Missoula, Montana. My parents moved there when I was 4 years old to go to college. My mother was a professor at the university, and my father ended up being a high school biology teacher. I grew up in an educational family.
Did it rub off then? Were you a book worm?
I was a very good student in grade school and was very unpopular as a result. I got bullied and pushed around quite a bit. By the time I got to high school, I was kind of an outsider and had just a few friends I was hanging out with. My friends were partiers, so I got distracted by all that.
I ended up leaving school when I turned 16. It’s interesting that both my father and grandfather were also high school dropouts. My dad, the high school biology teacher, threw a fit and kicked me out of the house. My mother, interestingly, being the college professor and a book nut, did not have as much of a problem with it and seemed to have some faith that I was going to find my way. My parents had divorced, so my father and I did not talk for a number of years. My mother and I still saw each other occasionally, although I moved in with some friends.
I got a job at King’s Table Buffet, starting as a chicken breader and working up to a dish washer, cook and meat cook. I had been there about three years, so I was 18 or 19, when JoAnne walked in and applied for a summer job.
JoAnne is my wife. We became friends over the summer, and we were working in the kitchen together and getting to know each other. When she started college that fall, she invited me to sit in on a couple of her classes. I became interested in what she was doing, and I realized that I had, maybe, more ambition than I thought.
She was studying anthropology, so I went to art history and religious studies classes and stuff like that. I got my GED, took the ACT and was able to enroll in college that fall. I started a year later than I would have, so I was 19 instead of 18. I was out of school for four years.
What did you study in college, and when did neurology grab your attention?
I decided I would follow in my father’s footsteps and do a zoology degree. I thought about becoming a forest ranger, or working in a zoo – something like that. I pulled out the course catalogue and planned my whole schedule for four years. After a couple quarters of getting pretty much straight A’s and hitting my stride, I started talking to my friends about whether they thought I was smart enough to do what I thought I wanted to do when I was a kid, which was to be a doctor. Medicine was always where I thought I’d end up.
I took a physiology course and learned about how neural cells talked to each other and that got me really excited about being a doctor, and actually becoming a neurologist. I turned my four-year schedule into a five-year schedule so I could do pre-med, finish my zoology degree and minor in chemistry.
And you’re also a Rhodes Scholar?
In my fourth year, I met a philosophy professor who was the counselor adviser for the Rhodes Scholarship Committee. She suggested that I would be a good candidate for that scholarship. I didn’t think about it again until nine months later when the committee chairman asked, “Where’s your application? It is supposed to be in by tomorrow.” I told him I wasn’t applying because JoAnne and I wanted to get married. He said, “You’re not going to get it, but just apply to find out more about yourself.”
I went home, wrote an essay and filled out the applications. The school interview went well enough that they selected me and another student. We got on a plane the next morning and went to Seattle. There were like 15 people there and we interviewed all day. I won.
Was JoAnne ever like, “You’re crazy. You should go for this?”
Kind of. I did not really talk to her much about it because I did not think it was going to happen. You had to pass through three levels of interviews and it all happened very, very quickly within a four-day period. Then, the winner had to go to Oxford University in England for two years. I was not at all prepared for that.
So, things got really rocky between JoAnne and me, and we split up that summer. I packed up my stuff and went to England. We had been together for about seven years, so it was really hard. Within two weeks we were calling each other on the phone. At that time there were no cell phones and no email. So to call each other at $1.80 per minute, I spent all my extra money talking to her. All my friends between semesters would go traveling, but I sat at home and ate canned food. She visited me for spring break, and I went home at Christmas. We married after my first year. I finished my master’s degree as a research degree in physiology there.
While all that was happening, I was applying to some really good medical schools such as Harvard, Yale. I did not hear from any of them until after I sent them a postcard saying, “Hey, I just got this Rhodes scholarship so I am going to have to defer for two years, is that OK?” Within a week I had interviews at all those schools, which was awesome. One of the highlights of my life is telling Harvard “No, thank you.” I accepted an offer at Stanford University and deferred that for two years.
It is a much smaller medical school, so they only have 86 students a year which is about a third of the size of Harvard. There was a really strong emphasis on individuality, creativity and entrepreneurship. I was very attracted to that. Stanford also was in northern California, which is an amazing place to live.
After two years at Oxford, I decided to pursue research. I got a scholarship to do a Ph.D., so I did two years of medical school, and spent five years doing my Ph.D. in neurosciences, and then went back to finish the last two years of medical school. The plan was to become an academic neurologist studying some specific disease and become an expert. You know where you only see like five patients a year which have the rarest thing you can think of.
A couple of things happened: I enjoyed designing and doing experiments and I liked hanging out in the lab and being around scientists. At the same time, when I started doing my clinical work, I found out how much I really enjoyed taking care of patients and helping the people who were sick and scared, and interacting with people at that level. I liked it and was good at it, and decided that I really wanted to be more of a doctor and less of a scientist.
What about neuroscience attracted you?
That fascination with the idea that cells in the body talk to each other, that there are these communication systems – and systems within systems – that ultimately create who you are as a human being. That still amazes me. I would say there is something particularly special about medicine that keeps a person engaged. There are limitless opportunities to do so many different things as a doctor. You cannot ever be bored with it. I feel lucky in that I found something in medicine that just blows me away every day.
How did you arrive in Casper?
By 2004, as I finished up my neurology fellowship in Boston, JoAnne and I had two kids who were 6 and 10. We decided that we did not want to continue to raise our kids in a big city, so we started looking at smaller towns. I contacted a recruiter and one of the first places he mentioned was Casper.
I came here to interview and was really impressed with the quality of doctors that I met. I was really impressed with the vision that the hospital had for growing high-caliber specialty services and being a regional referral center. They made it clear to me that if I wanted to create an epilepsy center, for example, that they would get behind it.
A friend, Lisa Burridge, took me up on the mountain and showed me around town. I fell in love with the geography, the people and the hospital. I called my wife from the top of Casper Mountain and said you have to come out here. I took the offer and we came after my fellowship in 2005.
For a town of Casper’s size, how would you rate Wyoming Medical Center?
The thing that impresses me most has been the hospital’s ongoing commitment to improving. I am really proud of the organization and its commitment to getting better. We were certainly not perfect when I got here, and we are not perfect today; but, I think we are light years away in terms of quality and efficiency than we were eight years ago. To me that is a mark of a really healthy facility: one that learns from its mistakes, learns from its past, and strides to become better.
The other thing that continues to impress me is the breadth of services we are able to offer in a town of this size. To have this many types of well-trained specialists is really, really unusual. It makes it possible for me to practice at the level I do, because I have colleagues who can help in all the other aspects of medicine.
How important is that for a rural area?
We are 225 miles away from the next big medical center. If Wyoming Medical Center did not offer all the services it does, people would have to be sent by Life Flight on a much more regular basis at huge expense and at huge risks. I think that we are still a long ways from other places in Wyoming, so people come to us from Lander, the Basin, etc. They are still pretty far from home, but they are a lot closer than if they had to go to Colorado.
I think that our hospital wants to be a very welcoming place for those folks. We are building a new tower that is going to have better spaces and better accommodations. I think that will make a difference and help us to continue to move towards being that sort of pinnacle of referral place that we envision ourselves to be.
So, when did you start talking to your dad again?
That happened when I decided to go to college. He heard about that and reached out to me. We started talking. I moved in with my mother my first year of college, which turned out to be her last year of law school. Then she left for a job in Arizona and I moved in with my father for the rest of college.
When I started patching up our relationship, it was still pretty rocky for a while. He got really sick about three years ago with cancer, and we got really close again. He passed away two years ago.
Is this an amazing story to you, or is it just, you know, your life?
I do have the ability to step outside myself and look at the story. I have told it enough and seen people’s reactions that I think I understand how remarkable it is. I am a pretty harsh critic of myself. I kind of look back on it and feel there was definitely a waste of time in there, some bad decisions that I made.
Did he ever say anything to you, you know, about dropping out and then becoming a neurologist and Rhodes Scholar?
I do not remember any particular phrases or talks, but I do remember overhearing him bragging to his friends about me. I think he was pretty amazed by what I did and how I did it. He was awfully proud of it, and that made me very proud that he cared enough.
I cannot believe that you do not speak every year at graduation. Or do you?
I have a couple of times. I did the graduation talk at the school I dropped out of, which was pretty cool.
Dr. Wheeler is board certified in neurology, epilepsy and clinical neurophysiology. He is a Rhodes Scholar and the 2019 American Heart Association Physician of the Year. He serves on the boards for Wyoming Dementia Care and the American Heart Association (Southwest Affiliate.) He is director of the Wyoming Epilepsy Center and medical director of the Wyoming Medical Center Primary Stroke Center. His private practice is Wyoming Neurologic Associates, 2546 E. Second St. #600. Call (307) 265-4343 for a referral or appointment.