Military Miracles Show the Way

By Lephart, Susan Pressly | USA TODAY, November 2011 | Go to article overview

Military Miracles Show the Way

Lephart, Susan Pressly, USA TODAY

WHAT DEFINES the American spirit? The answer can be found in the way we respond to adversity. Throughout U.S. history, you will find destruction, pain, and suffering--and you will find citizens who respond by choosing to rebuild, heal, and move forward.

The brave men and women of the military who have been injured in combat have endured countless surgeries, infections, amputations, prosthetics, and years of physical therapy. With their bodies broken and their spirit ever-determined, these wounded troops have had to find a way to manage their condition, fighting a new battle of recovery, rehabilitation, and reentry into civilian life.

The most common injury a warrior faces in Iraq and Afghanistan is orthopedic extremity trauma, which is any severe wound to the arms and legs; 53% of the wounds that occur on the battlefield affect the extremities. Because of the explosives and roadside bombs that have defined these wars, soldiers am enduring severely damaged or infected limbs that are causing more and more doctors to resort to amputation.

The intense blasts propel dirt and debris into wounds, causing infections that often do not respond to antibiotics. Without a way to kill the lethal bacteria, surgeons am forced to remove the contaminated tissue. Additionally, these explosives cause a series of complex fractures throughout the length of the bone. Physicians turn to equally complex measures to restore the limb that can result in multiple surgeries, infections, and eventual amputation.

According to a 2009 study at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, 75 injured troops had to be treated with amputation. Of those, 21 lost more than one limb. When they conducted the study again in 2010, it was found that 171 troops had amputations, and 65 lost more than one limb. Today's veterans, like those before them, wish to return to the lives they once had; so far, today's medicine fails to grant that wish.

A soldier is an athlete, working hard to achieve a level of admirable physical prowess; after amputation, even mundane physical acts can become a challenge. When these troops return home, they have to deal with the frustration of reduced mobility and dexterity, ongoing pain, numerous procedures, and the overwhelming expense of such medical care. Extremity trauma changes their entire lives.

In a 2011 study, Jessica Cross, a physician and captain in the military, rated orthopedic extremity trauma against other forms of combat injury. She found that extremity trauma contributed the most to permanent disability, while injuries to the head and thorax, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder, had higher rates of recovery. Among all of the injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan, extremity trauma has the most lasting and intense impact on the soldier's quality of life.

Our troops am coming home broken, and Airlift Research Foundation, a publicly funded organization that supports orthopedic trauma research, is working to find a way to help them recover faster and stronger. We currently have four grant projects that am engaged in groundbreaking developments in two aspects of extremity trauma: infection and bone restoration. By investing in these pioneering studies, we can help wounded veterans recover more rapidly from even the most devastating injuries while avoiding complications that can derail their recovery.

Infections, for instance, create a significant problem for combat hospitals. Certain infections on the battlefield are resistant to antibiotics, and they can endanger a soldier during surgery and treatment, causing amputation or worse. One of our grantees, Tianhong Dai of Harvard Medical School, is researching the use of ultraviolet-C light to kill lethal bacteria in combat-related wound infections at the scene of the injury.


It is well known that UVC light can kill bacteria. In fact, UV wands am sold commercially for killing household germs, but its use in treating wound infections is quite new. …

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