Orthopaedist saves lives in spare time
Member of search and rescue helicopter unit helps injured in remote areas
By Carolyn Rogers
Volunteering to sneak into Mostar, Bosnia, for two weeks in August of 1993 to operate on civilians shot by sniper fire is just one example of the willingness of Louis M. Kwong, MD, to help those in dire need. Since 1995, the orthopaedic surgeon from Torrance, Calif., also has served on a special search and rescue unit with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department called Emergency Service Detail (ESD).
Dr. Kwong volunteers for a 10-hour shift as the physician member of the ESD rescue unit approximately once every three weeks. ESD's fleet of three Sikorsky military-style helicopters are manned by six-person crews consisting of two deputy paramedics, a sergeant who serves as the crew chief, a pilot, a co-pilot and a physician.
Most of the ESD rescues are in remote areas; individuals are either lost and need to be located, or they are known to be injured, but are inaccessible by conventional means.
"Frequently, motorcyclists catapult over the edge of the roadway down into the valley, or hikers fall and become injured," Dr. Kwong says. "Motor vehicle accidents are also a very frequent scenario."
At the scene, "We assess patients' injuries and stabilize them," Dr. Kwong says. "The patient is usually stabilized to a backboard and put into a litter basket which is then brought up to the helicopter on a cable. The deputy paramedics and I are then brought back up to the helicopter by cable, and the patient is then transported to the nearest trauma center."
ESD doctors train in many of the mountaineering techniques that are used by the deputy paramedics. This mountaineering training spans a period of four months, including all-day training most Saturdays and Sundays. The doctors also train in helicopter operations, because they are often required to repel out of the helicopter or are lowered by cable to the victim. During their shift, if the crew is not occupied by actual rescue operations, they are involved in training at a helicopter base at a Nike missile site in the Angeles Forest. From that location, the crew is able to cover all of L.A. County, including Catalina Island.
One recent rescue mission involved two lost snowboarders.
"Two members of the ski patrol team were almost in worse shape than the snowboarders because they had fallen into the water while searching," Dr. Kwong says. "They'd gotten wet and were hypothermic."
The crew saved six people that day. In addition to the two snowboarders and two ski patrol members, two other rescue personnel were missing and had to be located before dark.
"That whole search and rescue operation was conducted under very adverse weather conditions," Dr. Kwong says. "It was a testament to the skills of the pilot who had to be flying into the valleys and mountains with very poor visibility and poor weather."
Dr. Kwong also says the deputy paramedics he flies with "are among the cream of the crop in the sheriff's department. They are top climbers, swimmers, runners and divers. They're trained in S.W.A.T. tactics. They've done it all and have nothing to prove and are the nicest people to work with."
Dr. Kwong became involved with ESD after meeting an anesthesiologist who was working with the Sheriff's Department Medical Reserve Company. The other volunteer ESD doctors are emergency medical physicians, family practice physicians and orthopaedic surgeons-Christopher Jordan, MD, and Donald Longjohn, MD. Many of the injuries that are sustained by the victims are orthopaedic injuries.
In his private practice, Dr. Kwong is chief of orthopaedics at Century City Hospital and is co-medical director of its joint replacement program. He also spends part of his time in academics as an assistant clinical professor of orthopaedics with the UCLA School of Medicine. In addition, he is vice-chair of the department of orthopaedic Surgery at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, where he is also medical director of the Orthopaedic Clinics, and chief of the Orthopaedic Arthritis Service.