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Surgeon Volunteers Time and Skills to Treat Wounded Troops Overseas

September 17, 2009

Dr. Michael S. Weingarten is used to seeing his share of traumatic injuries. As professor and chief of vascular surgery and director of the wound healing program at Drexel University College of Medicine, Weingarten spends most of his days in the Hahnemann O.R. In addition to vascular cases, he treats a large variety of blunt and penetrating trauma – ranging from gunshot wounds to life-threatening injuries sustained in automobile crashes and other accidents. But even this experienced and distinguished surgeon found himself taken aback by what he saw over a two-week period this summer when he volunteered to treat wounded troops at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. 

“It was no comparison to what we see here,” said Weingarten, who made the trip in response to an email from the Society of Vascular Surgery about a shortage of vascular surgeons at Landstuhl. The medical center is the first stop for wounded American and coalition troops from the war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are flown from the battlefield in the middle of the night to avoid enemy fire and arrive at the hospital in the morning with traumatic head injuries, severely damaged limbs, and in some cases, amputations.

“The scope of the injuries you see is incredible,” said Weingarten. “The staff needs to be prepared for everything. Many of the soldiers have severe limb or head injuries from improvised explosive devices. And these are young people ranging in age from their 20s to 40s.”

Weingarten would handle four to five cases in the O.R. each day, spending enough time to get the patient stabilized so that he or she could be flown back to the U.S. within 72-96 hours on specially designed C-17s known as Critical Care Air Transport flights.

“You knew they had a long road ahead of them,” Weingarten said of the brave military men and women he treated. “But the care they got was amazing – from the nurses to the surgeons – it was some of the best I’ve seen in my career.”

And although the patients left Landstuhl quickly to return to the U.S., their surgeons in Germany would continue to communicate via videoconference with physicians at the U.S. medical centers taking them in, just as they had with the surgical teams in Afghanistan and Iraq. “There was total continuity of care from the forward surgical teams on the battlefield to the hospitals in the U.S.,” said Weingarten.

The experience at Landstuhl left a dramatic impression on Weingarten, who has already signed up to return next year, should he be needed. “It’s probably one of the best things I’ve done professionally,” he said.

Weingarten will share his experience during a Grand Rounds presentation entitled “From the Devastation of War, Advances in Surgical Care: A Surgeon’s Story” on September 29 at 7 a.m. in the New College Building, Geary Auditorium.