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Surgeon impacted by volunteer work
on injured soldiers

By Linda Finarelli
Staff Writer
Times Chronicle • Glenside News

Dr. Brian C. Lein (left), Medical Corps commander,
Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, and 1993
graduate of the AMH Surgical Residency Program,
with Dr. Terry Sullivan, a visiting vascular surgeon
from Abington Memorial, at the Surgical Intensive
Care Unit at Landstuhl.

When Dr. Terry R. Sullivan volunteered for a two-week stint as a surgeon at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center - the military hospital U.S. soldiers injured in Iraq and Afghanistan are brought to before returning to the States - he saw it as "a small way to serve the country and provide a service that was lacking."

The personal impact turned out to be something more.

Though told it would be "a life-altering experience," that was an understatement, the Fort Washington resident said last week. "I thought I understood the word ‘hero,' but seeing what these soldiers have sacrificed is life-changing."

Director of Vascular Surgical Services at Abington Memorial Hospital, Sullivan joined 46 other members of the Society for Vascular Surgery to provide some relief to the limited number of vascular surgeons in the military available to serve at home and abroad.

"The society put out a call for volunteers and many of us decided that would be a good thing to do," Sullivan said of his service in November at Landstuhl, located at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany.

A full-service hospital, Landstuhl cares for soldiers who are usually two or three days out from the time of injury, he said. Soldiers he treated, Sullivan said, fell into four main categories: those with extensive injuries to lower extremities or traumatic amputations; open fractures with arterial disruption - loss of circulation, that required reconstruction or vascular bypass surgery to preserve the limb; major burns; and those with major blast injuries including head trauma, facial trauma, major chest and abdominal injuries from shrapnel and IEDs (improvised explosive devices).

"Ninety percent of what I saw were [injuries] from IEDs," he said.

"It is amazing how dedicated and selfless
these people are. They don't look at
themselves as being heroes; they would
say, ‘I'm just doing my job, doc.'"
Dr. Terry R. Sullivan

Sullivan, who spent 10 years at Temple University Hospital - "as close to a war zone as you will find in America" - said the principles of trauma care are the same for civilians, say from a vehicle accident or gunshot wound, as the military. But "the degree of devastation from military injuries is profound," as is sometimes the degree of disability survivors experience, he said. "I had never before experienced [injuries of ] the same magnitude.

"I thought I was prepared for anything, but what I saw was a sobering experience."

Dr. Terry Sullivan, a visiting
vascular surgeon from
Abington Memorial, stands
beside a Red Cross bus at
the Surgical Intensive Care
Unit at Landstuhl.

The normal course of events, he explained, is for injured soldiers to go to Level I forward surgical hospitals close to where they are stationed, usually a tent or portable building where temporary damage control surgical procedures are performed such as the Army field hospitals at Bagram in Afghanistan and at Balad in Iraq. From there, the injured go to a Level II hospital, Landstuhl, where there is more stabilization surgery, and from there they go stateside to Walter Reed or Bethesda hospitals.

Surprisingly, Col. Brian Lein, the Medical Corps commander at Landstuhl, turned out to be a familiar face, as he and Sullivan had trained at the same time during a rotation at Temple when they were residents.

Sullivan said no soldiers died while he was at Landstuhl and there were no reported deaths of soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan during the time period. The number of military deaths has fallen due to the surge, but there are still a significant number of injuries coming from both areas, he said, increasingly more from Afghanistan.

His two-week stint had a profound impact on him, Sullivan said, not only from the extent of the injuries he saw - he participated in about half of the operations on approximately 30 critical care admissions to Landstuhl- but due to the stories he heard.

"There were stories of bravery and heroism I could not have possibly imagined," he said.

One story, he related, was of a medic who was patrolling with a unit in a town where the soldiers got a tip that one house had "bad guys living there," and they went inside, but the house was empty, Sullivan said. One soldier opened a refrigerator door that had been booby-trapped and it exploded, causing open fractures in both arms and one leg of the medic, who could barely move, but he managed to drag himself across the floor to put a tourniquet on the leg of a another soldier whose leg was amputated by the explosion, saving that soldier's life.

If asked to go again, he probably would, Sullivan said, noting the experience has left him wanting to do something more to help on the rehabilitation side for the soldiers coming home.

"There are things I'm still processing," he said.

"It is amazing how dedicated and selfless these people are," Sullivan said. "Their attitude was to help each other get through [the war] and get back home safely. They don't look at themselves as being heroes; they would say, ‘I'm just doing my job, doc.'"