April 2003 Bulletin

Orthopaedist answers call to duty, heads to Afghanistan

Orthopaedist/Army reservist saves lives, limbs, becomes "one with the dust"

By Carolyn Rogers

Have you ever wished you could slow down and learn to stop ‘sweating the small stuff?’

Spend a few months working in Afghanistan and you just may get your wish. At least that’s what AAOS candidate member and Army reservist Kimberly Burgess, MD, discovered after spending three-and-a-half months with the 339th Combat Support Hospital in Afghanistan last fall.

"I have a totally different outlook on what’s important now," she says. "I don’t get in a hurry anymore. Things like getting caught in a traffic jam, waiting in a slow line at the store–the little inconveniences of life just don’t bother me."

Although there certainly are safer ways to gain this healthy perspective on life, Dr. Burgess says she’s glad she served in Afghanistan.

"When I first told people I’d been deployed, my dad and many of the veterans I work with told me it would be an experience I’d never forget," she recalls. "And they were right. You don’t go someplace that is, as our commander put it, ‘a Fifth-World Country’ and come back unchanged."

Getting "called up"

Dr. Burgess enlisted in the Army Reserve 18 years ago as a college student; this was her first deployment.

"I was a medical student during Operation Desert Storm," she explains. "The Army doesn’t send medical students overseas, so this was my first deployment…and hopefully my last!"

Once she got the call to serve in Operation Enduring Freedom, there was little time for preparation.

"I’m single so basically I had to thrust all of my bills, the care of my home and dog to my parents, who are in their 70s," she says. "But my dad is retired from the military, so they took it all in stride."

At the time, she’d only recently begun working for the Huntington VA Medical Center in Huntington, W. Va.

"Being a government entity, the VA was very understanding," she says. "But it put the patients at quite an inconvenience. I’m just now seeing some consults that were put off from September and October."

The main inconvenience she had to suffer, she says with a laugh, was having her cable TV cut off.

339th Combat Support Hospital

Assigned to the 339th Combat Support Hospital based out of Coraopolis, Pa., Dr. Burgess’ deployment began with 30 days of mission-essential training at Fort Dix in New Jersey. She arrived in Bagram, Afghanistan in early September 2002.

The 339th established their full-service 236-bed mobile hospital at Bagram Air Base, not far from Kabul. The medical facilities included triage, surgery, intensive care and intermediate care wards, medical labs and other medical services. It was the first time a U.S. combat hospital had been deployed with a mobile CAT-scan.

Becoming "one with the dust"

"Really messy camping" is the way Dr. Burgess described the soldiers’ accommodations.

"We slept in tents and used little port-a-johns. We did have running water and showers, although the water was cold most of the time. One water heater doesn’t do the job when 40 to 50 women want to take a shower!"

Every day at about 3:30 in the afternoon, she recalls, the winds would kick up and the talcum-powder fine dust would get into everything.

"The dust got in your bedclothes, your shoes–everywhere," she says. "We stored our underwear and clothing in Ziploc bags, but you really couldn’t avoid it. You felt dirty and grimy all the time."

Eventually, though, they learned to "become one with the dust."

Sleeping next to an airfield presented its own challenges. "Aircraft were taking off and landing all the time, so we were awakened about every two hours."

Still, it could have been a lot worse, she insists. "When they started setting up the unit last spring, the conditions were much rougher. I had it easy compared to some."

The country

Afghanistan’s dusty, mountainous country has been ravaged by decades of oppression, poverty, occupation, war and tribal feuding, Dr. Burgess says. The Taliban destroyed the vineyards and the Russians razed the land of the once fertile valley, leaving the land decimated and seeded with more than 7 million land mines. The U.S. Army base is strewn with hulks of wrecked MIGS and crumbling hangars from the Russian occupation.

The country’s infrastructure is "virtually non-existent," Dr. Burgess says.

The mission

Upon deployment, the reservists were told their job would be a military mission to support U.S. and coalition forces, Dr. Burgess says. "Essentially, though, the military mission turned into a humanitarian mission. The U.S. and coalition forces weren’t the ones getting seriously injured–more than 90 percent of the patients at the hospital were Afghans."

As soon as the Afghan people heard an American hospital was set up in Bagram, they arrived in droves. "They’d travel in the back of cars, driving 15 hours, bypassing the Afghan hospitals to come see us. Their medical infrastructure just isn’t there."

The soldiers treated the Afghan people for traumatic injuries and everyday illnesses, but most heartbreaking were the countless children maimed or killed by land mines.

7 million land mines

"It’s amazing what a land mine does to the human body," Dr. Burgess says. "The injured were primarily children, women, and other innocent bystanders. The country is just riddled with land mines–you don’t venture off the road there."

One young boy in particular stands out in her mind.

"I think he was 10 or 11–a typical young boy," she says. "Imagine a young American boy walking down the road. He sees a can, walks up to it and kicks it. Well, this child saw an unexploded rocket on the road somewhere–a bomb–and he walked up to it and kicked it. He lost his right foot and leg, his right hand and most of his left hand. He was blinded and had all sorts of intra-abdominal injuries."

The saddest part was when his family arrived three or four days later, Dr. Burgess recalls. "They looked at him and said, ‘If he lives we can’t take care of him. If he dies we want the body.’"

The boy did survive, and thankfully they were able to transfer him to a children’s hospital where a nun was helping to take care of him. Still, the situation was maddening.

"Here our trauma surgeons had worked and worked and worked to save this child, and then the family doesn’t have means to take care of him," Dr. Burgess laments. "He’s going to require inordinate amounts of care for the rest of his life, and they just don’t have the infrastructure to support that."

If duty calls again

When asked about the war with Iraq, Dr. Burgess says she will serve again if called.

"The people who ultimately pay the price in a war are the soldiers," she says. "And our guys need help–they need people to care of them when they get hurt. I made a commitment almost 19 years ago to support and defend the constitution and obey the orders of the commander in chief. It said nothing about whether I agree with him, or if I like him. I’m going to do what I’m asked."

Back in the States

The soldiers of the 339th Combat Support Hospital arrived home in mid-December 2002.

"By then, I hadn’t seen television for about five months," Dr. Burgess recalls. "And I love to cook, so all I could think about on the way home was watching the Food Network. But when I arrived home and turned on my TV, my cable wasn’t working. It had been shut off."

After numerous phone calls and delays, the cable company finally turned her service back on–two weeks later. It was the type of hassle that might have gotten her blood pressure up in the not-so-distant past.

Not this time, though.

"No, little things like that don’t bother me now," she says with a laugh. "It’s just cable."

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