‘We're happiest in the trenches’: Brothers, veterans walk new path together in medical school

Brothers stand in skyway.
Brothers Alex (left) and Chris Pais were best friends growing up. Both drawn to serve in the military, they later found a calling to medicine after their mother's cancer diagnosis. (Skip Rowland)

Brothers Alex and Chris Pais proudly served in the military because they were committed to helping those in need. 

That passion grew over the years and now has driven them to pursue careers in medicine — together.

“Alex and I had a lot of phone conversations about medical school,” said younger brother Chris. “It was, ‘I’ll do it if you do it.’”

The brothers, currently enrolled as students in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, served overseas in the Middle East with the Marines and Army National Guard, respectively. Discipline, integrity and determination were central in everything they did and learned.

“My time in the military helped me in so many ways,” Alex said. “It instilled in me the work ethic to keep going, even when things get hard.

"Waking up early in medical school, you're still tired. Staying up late is still hard. It's still stressful to have lots of work, but you’ve had stress before. You've been pushed before."

It also helps having your brother, and best friend, by your side.

"We both want each other to succeed," Chris said. "It's been particularly helpful to me to have someone who's walked the walk." 

Alex in military uniform.
Alex Pais, pictured in Al Qa'im, Iraq, in 2008. He joined the Marines in 2005 and deployed to the Middle East twice. (Courtesy photo)

The oldest of four children, Alex, 32, and Chris, 28, learned early what it means to serve. Their father, Anthony, spent 30 years in the Marines. The family moved often, and the brothers lived nearly half their childhood in Germany and Japan.

“When you move a lot, you are always the new kid,” Chris said. “We became each other’s best friend. We formed a strong bond early on.” 

Always drawn to the same hobbies, the brothers' decision to serve in the military was an obvious choice. 

“The apple didn’t fall far from the tree,” Alex said. “Both our grandfathers also served. Growing up, we were surrounded by it. It was the natural thing to do.”

Alex joined the Marines in 2005 after graduating from high school. Stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, he deployed twice to the Middle East. One of the highlights of his four-year career, he said, was in 2007 when he was promoted to corporal. His father pinned him during the ceremony.

“It was definitely a proud moment for me,” Alex said.

Younger brother Chris enlisted with the Virginia Army National Guard in 2009 and was stationed in Virginia Beach. In 2011, shortly after he returned from deployment in support of Operation New Dawn in Iraq, the brothers received devastating news. Their mother was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer.

“Mom’s diagnosis weighed heavily on us,” Chris said.

A registered nurse who worked in hospitals and public schools throughout her career, Jane Pais had always encouraged her sons to pursue a career serving others. When she became ill, Alex and Chris took a closer look at the path they were on. 

“Her illness planted a seed in my mind,” Alex said.

Chris in military uniform in front of a palace in Iraq.
Chris Pais, pictured in 2011 at Al-Faw Palace in Baghdad, Iraq, enlisted with the Virginia Army National Guard in 2009 and was stationed in Virginia Beach. (Courtesy photo)

Richmond gave them the opportunity to be closer to their mother, who was living in Northern Virginia with her husband and youngest daughter.

“When we told her our plan for medical school, she was so excited,” Alex said.

Jane Pais passed away in November 2018, but her love and support continue to inspire the brothers.

“I think about her every day,” Alex said. “She is my motivation to keep going no matter how tired I am.”

Chris agreed. "When I want to cut off studying earlier, I often think about my mom and how long the physicians had to train to provide the best care for her. I want to have the same impact they had on me. It's a very challenging, rewarding experience and honestly, I don't think there's any other career path that would satisfy me the way that medicine has and will continue to do."

Added Alex, "We're happiest in the trenches."

Now that Alex has begun third-year rotations, he is researching residency programs.

"He's my guinea pig," Chris said with a laugh. "I guess that's the classic older brother. You're the pioneer and I just come through the blazed trail."

Both hope to become surgeons and serve military veterans. 

"I recently finished a rotation at the McGuire VA Medical Center," Alex said. "It's a patient group we both understand. We want to help advance their quality of care."

Brothers in the School of Medicine.
Ten years after joining the military, the Pais brothers are now students at the VCU School of Medicine. They dream of becoming surgeons who treat military veterans. "It's a patient group we both understand," Alex said. "We want to help advance their quality of care." (Skip Rowland)

During the summers, the brothers found time to conduct research in a VCU neuroscience lab.

“Alex and Chris are special,” said Jennifer Wolstenholme, Ph.D., a School of Medicine graduate and an assistant professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology. “Their work ethic is incredible. They have gone from doing what they are told to designing their own experiments and analyzing data. They can do it all.”

Their dedication is getting noticed. Earlier this year, Alex was awarded the Fred and Rose Shaia Family Scholarship, established by School of Medicine alumnus Fred T. Shaia, M.D., and his wife, Rose Marie. The scholarship is given to a student who shows the characteristics of a patient-centered physician. 

Chris holds the Ellen A. Holimon Endowed Scholarship, which is awarded to the child of active or retired military. School of Medicine graduate James L. Holimon, M.D., and his wife, Beth, created the scholarship in honor of his mother. "Any successes that I've achieved are because someone helped me along the way and that's something that's not lost on me," Chris said.

“We have so much to be thankful for,” Alex added.

That includes their time in the military.

“It is part of who we are, and I know it will help us become better physicians,” Chris said. “A medical career is challenging, but when you remember that the ultimate goal is to provide a better life for everyone you come into contact with, you know the challenge is worth it.”

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