For someone who has already accomplished a lot, Brett Theeler received what he calls the top honor of his career earlier this month.
Theeler, a native of Mitchell, received an honorary doctoral degree from Black Hills State University on May 4 during commencement. Theeler is deputy chief of the Department of Neurology at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, which is located in Bethesda, Maryland. Theeler, who carries the lieutenant colonel rank in the U.S. Army, was recognized by the university for significantly improving access to cutting edge, multi-disciplinary neuro-oncologic care for Department of Defense beneficiaries.
"Receiving the honorary doctoral degree was an incredible honor," Theeler said. "To be recognized in this way by Black Hills State is the top award or recognition I have ever received. Speaking at commencement is something I will never forget."
Theeler attended BHSU from 1996 to 2001. He was recruited to play basketball and received the Nelson Scholarship in Science and Mathematics. Joseph and Martha Nelson gifted BHSU the funding to sponsor a full ride, four-year scholarship to one science or mathematics student per year, and Theeler was the first student to receive this award.
"BHSU was proud to recognize Dr. Brett Theeler with an honorary doctorate of science degree," said Chris Crawford, provost and vice president for Academic Affairs at BHSU, in a statement. "Dr. Theeler, the first recipient of the Nelson Scholarship, was a remarkable pre-med student at BHSU. Dr. Theeler is an accomplished neurosurgeon in the U.S. Army. His passion for BHSU was evident during his remarks at commencement, where he shared how the university helped shape his professional values and how the close faculty-student connection really propelled him to excellence."
During his time at BHSU, Theeler majored in biology and minored in chemistry. The 1998-1999 BHSU men's basketball team, which Theeler played on, was inducted into the Yellow Jacket Hall of Fame in 2011. The team made the NAIA National Tournament in 1998 and 1999.
"I played with a great group of guys, who went on to have success after college," Theeler said. "Black Hills State uses its athletic programs to bring outstanding students onto campus, and I highly encourage future student athletes in the Mitchell area to check out BHSU."
After graduation in 2001, he joined the Army and attended medical school at the Uniformed Services University in Bethesda. From 2005 to 2009, he did a neurology residency at Madigan Army Medical Center, which is located in Fort Lewis, Washington, and from 2010 to 2012, he did a neuro-oncology fellowship at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas.
Since 2012, he has been stationed at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda. At Walter Reed, Theeler treats active-duty service members and their family members, military reitrees and veterans with brain or spine cancers.
Theeler currently serves at the Deputy Chief of the Department of Neurology and sees brain cancer patients in the Murtha Cancer Center and at the National Cancer Institute on the National Institutes of Health campus in Bethesda.
He is also an associate professor of neurology at the Uniformed Services University, which is the health science university of the U.S. federal government. As a neuro-oncologist, he takes care of some of the sickest patients with incurable types of brain cancer, such as glioblastoma, the cancer that recently took U.S. Sen. John McCain's life.
One of the things that Theeler said he is most proud of is his deployment in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, where he served as the Afghanistan theater traumatic brain injury neurologist at Craig Joint Theater Hospital at Bagram Air Force Base for five months un 2013. He has also co-authored over 40 publications with over 750 citations in medical literature to date.
"I am most proud of the work I do collaborating with my colleagues at Walter Reed and at the National Cancer Institute on clinical trials for patients with brain cancer," he said.
Last month, he was spotlighted by National Cancer Institute's Center for Cancer Research for his work to treat rare brain and spine cancers, such as pleomorphic xanthoastrocytoma (PXA) and anaplastic pleomorphic xanthoastrocytoma (APXA). Together, the institute says, the two diseases have less than 100 cases diagnosed each year in the United States, and less than 1,100 people living with the disease in the country. The diseases can be hard to diagnose because patients can have a wide range of symptoms, such as motor and speech impairments to experiencing seizures.
Theeler said he is intensely proud of his upbringing and hometown of Mitchell. He had multiple teachers that influenced him along the way, including Mark Budahl, Judy Vondruska, Mel Olson, Donna Fisher and Jerry Opbroek. Theeler took college prep chemistry and advanced biology with Opbroek.
"(Opbroek) had a way of convincing you to study beyond what was being taught in class," Theeler said. "He was an inspiring teacher, and I think the first time I considered a career in medicine was in his classes.:
Because of Opbroek's encouragement, Theeler often would go to school early in the morning before classes to study human anatomy, something he hopes to thank the teacher for in-person someday.
"My parents taught me to work hard, and that hard work is its own reward," he said. "I am fortunate to have been honored by Black Hills State for years of single-minded, hard work. I have a long career ahead of me, and I look forward to many more years of hard work. Hopefully, I can contribute to research that will improve outcomes for brain cancer patients."