Skip to Content
Southwest Center for Occupational and Environmental Health

Holcombe earns Case Study Award at USNAC

HOUSTON (Oct. 3, 2023) – Thomas Holcombe, MD, MRO, a second-year Occupational and Environmental Medicine Resident at the Southwest Center for Occupational and Environmental Health (SWCOEH), earned a Case Study Award at the United States Naval Aeromedical Conference (USNAC) in Pensacola, Fla. in August.

Dr. Holcombe delivered a poster presentation “Ankylosing Spondylitis in a Military Aviator in Ejection Seat Aircraft” and won the award for best Case Study. The award was presented by Captain Georgia “Peaches” Stoker, USN, MC, Officer-In-Charge, Naval Aerospace Medical Institute.

“Winning the award was extremely meaningful to me as I was able to share this pilot’s story,” Dr. Holcombe said. “Aviators by nature are skittish around doctors for fear of being grounded. This story will hopefully encourage and inspire other aviators to work with their flight surgeon for the shared goal of safe return to flight.”

The case study detailed a 27-year-old fighter pilot and his symptoms, including progressive, lower back pain, which worsened after long flights. A blood test confirmed Ankylosing Spondylitis (AS), a type of arthritis that causes inflammation in the joints and ligaments of the spine.


A cited report found that as spinal stiffness and fixed deformity progresses, “there may be a small or large effect on the pilot’s ability to maintain adequate look-out and also difficulty with seated position in the cockpit.”

The pilot in Dr. Holcombe’s presentation gained complete resolution of his pain using Humira. He completed instructor training at TOPGUN and flew more than 600 sorties during his tour without any issues. The pilot is now a Department Head at an operational squadron.

“This study prodded me to look into the published literature regarding other instances of inflammatory diseases within the occupational and military environments,” Dr. Holcombe said. “Chronic progressive diseases like ankylosing spondylitis are usually thought of as debilitating. For certain populations, these patients can be treated, surveilled, and returned to duty with few limitations which, in my opinion, is a big positive for these communities.” 

Holcombe USNAC award

Dr. Holcombe’s path to the SWCOEH includes service in the Navy, receiving the US Navy Commendation Medal in June 2020 and again in August 2022. His responsibilities with Carrier Air Wing EIGHT (CVW-8) included readiness, flight physicals, and primary care for five aviation squadrons for over 1,700 personnel.

After studying chemistry at Covenant College (Lookout Mountain, Ga.), Dr. Holcombe earned his MD from University of South Alabama College of Medicine in 2016. He is currently working on a master’s in bioethics from Trinity International University (Deerfield, Ill.).

The SWCOEH provides graduate-level training opportunities for occupational and environmental health professionals through our industrial hygiene, occupational and environmental medicine, occupational epidemiology, and Total Worker Health® programs.