Lt. Col. Stephanie Rowan, RN, MSN, wears many hats. On one day, you may find her conducting research and caring for head and neck cancer patients as a senior clinical research nurse in both the Department of Otolaryngology and Department of Comprehensive Dentistry. On another day, you may find her in uniform, providing support to her troops in the 149th Medical Group of the Texas National Guard, where she is the chief executive nurse. She is also a mom and a PhD candidate in translational science at the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.

In all her many roles, she is dedicated to service.

After serving 24 years in the Air Force, with 10 years of active duty, Rowan transferred to the National Guard in 2006 so she could focus on her family but also continue to serve her community.

“I didn’t want to lose that sense of camaraderie and service,” said Rowan. “And that’s one of the beautiful things about the National Guard. We get to take care of local people.”

Troops in the Texas National Guard are trained to respond and deploy worldwide, statewide or locally to natural disasters or other situations. In the 149th Medical Group, a team of doctors, medics, nurses and physician assistants are trained and ready to respond and serve where needed. So when the pandemic hit, although historic and unprecedented, Rowan and her troops were ready.

“I don’t think anywhere in any training guidebook or anyone’s wildest imagination would we think that COVID-19 would be this impactful to our daily lives,” said Rowan. “But inherently, we are trained to respond to this. COVID-19 is just a new facet, a new way for us to respond.”

As the virus began to spread throughout the state, the Texas National Guard was called upon to support communities across Texas by providing free, drive-thru COVID-19 testing sites. These testing sites are crucial for the 50% of Texans who live in rural areas or in areas that lack robust support systems, Rowan said. Without the mobile sites, many people would forgo testing because they are not able to make the hours-long drive to the nearest large city to receive testing.

In addition to testing, the Texas National Guard has further supported communities by distributing food to local food banks, issuing PPE to medical providers and disinfecting nursing homes and other high-risk facilities.

“COVID-19 puts everyone in a new space. The mental health impacts, the economic impacts, there’s a lot of anxiety,” said Rowan. “So to be able to provide that service in their hometown or in their county is really powerful.”

As the chief executive nurse, Rowan is tasked with monitoring the health and safety of her troops on the frontlines of COVID-19. She incorporates the work and research that she conducts at UT Health San Antonio into her duties in the National Guard and the daily care for her troops.

Currently, she is working under a TriService Nursing Research Program grant studying the effects of heat on clinical decision making. This has become especially important as the temperatures soar in Texas while the troops, wearing masks, gowns and other PPE, administer tests in sites that are often set up in parking lots or other facilities without air conditioning. The insights of her research have led her to establish safety protocols that keep her troops safe, healthy and better able to serve the community.

“The research I’ve been able to do at the health science center has direct application to what I’m doing with the Guard,” Rowan said. “It really has all come together to support the folks who are able to get out there in the field and take care of Texans. I feel really blessed to be able to be here in this role.”

And for Rowan, that role is more behind-the-scenes in nature; she is not able to be directly on the frontlines because she wears yet another hat — survivor.

In November 2019, Rowan was diagnosed with stage 3 ovarian cancer. Now that she is in recovery during a global pandemic, it is even more important to her to advocate for patients and vulnerable populations.

“I understand how a lot of those high-risk folks have to manage. I also haven’t gone to Target, haven’t gone to Walmart, all those high-risk places,” she said. “It’s very personal to me, so it’s important how, professionally, I engage and respond to those risks. As a nurse and as a patient advocate, I’m out there sending the message of please, please, please wear your mask and social distance.”

The work of Rowan and her team have impacted lives across Texas and provided a sense of security and safety to many during this time of anxiety and unknowns, said Rowan.

“The UT Health San Antonio mission of service really rings true with me,” she said. “Not only to the military but also to the health science center. Being able to serve Texans, either in my civilian position or through my position in the National Guard, has been really wonderful.”