Two faculty neurosurgeons give time, skills to aid injured troops

Soldiers don't act alone -- they depend on their buddies, their superiors and the military network that provides for their needs.

And for those currently serving in Iraq, there's a hole in their support system: a shortage of military neurosurgeons to take care of the head wounds some are suffering.

Drs. Howard Morgan (right) and Christopher Madden spent several weeks in Germany where they operated on soldiers injured in Iraq.

So recently, two UT Southwestern neurosurgeons gave up their regular jobs for a few weeks to serve in Germany, as part of a string of civilian neurosurgeons helping to take up the slack.

Dr. Howard Morgan said he heard from a general and two full colonels when he expressed an interest in going. "That shows you what their need was," said Dr. Morgan, who holds the Trammell Crow Professorship in Neurosurgery.

He worked at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center for two and a half weeks in April. While there, he treated about a dozen horrific head injuries, about half a dozen spinal cases and a "multitude of walking wounded."

"I saw one 18-year-old soldier that I thought was going to die promptly, but he didn't, and he began to wake up after I removed a blood clot from his brain," he said.

Another UT Southwestern neurosurgeon, Dr. Christopher Madden, served for two weeks in June. "It was good," he said. "It wasn't as busy as I think it was for Howard."

Most of the injuries Dr. Morgan, an assistant professor of neurological surgery, saw were due to "improvised explosive devices," or IEDs, made of shrapnel packed around an explosive core.

"They pack scrap metal and garbage and all kinds of dirty stuff, and then they try to blow it up in our troops' faces," he said. Body armor and helmets provide a large measure of protection, but the soldiers' eyes, hands and faces are still vulnerable.

Dr. Madden, 38, saw only one soldier who was hit by an IED. "He escaped without as much injury as he could have had," he said. The soldier suffered a minor head injury and a broken jaw.

The soldiers treated by the UT Southwestern surgeons arrived in Germany after having received preliminary care in Iraq, which Dr. Morgan called "superb."

He hit the ground running when he first arrived to take over from the previous volunteer. "I passed him in the airport, and he gave me the beeper, and I went straight to the hospital," Dr. Morgan said.

At first, he was very busy, but then the cases tapered off. "I guess that's just the way war goes," he said.

Air Force Col. Kory Cornum, squadron commander while the pair was there, said Dr. Morgan carried the heaviest load, with five cases per day at first.

"I tell them all, 'I hope you come over here and are bored to tears,'" Col. Cornum said.

The number of cases Dr. Morgan handled taught him a lesson. "I found out I'm probably too old to be on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week," said Dr. Morgan, who is 61.

A graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, Dr. Morgan previously had served in the military, with just over 11 years active duty under his belt.

Leaving their civilian practices temporarily didn't cause much disruption. Department head Dr. Duke Samson was very supportive, as were the surgeons' partners.

"I think it's an outstanding gesture on both their parts," Dr. Samson said. "We and the rest of the faculty have agreed that the call schedule can be altered to allow them to make this gesture. It involves a little more work all around, but it's worth it."

And both surgeons said they would be willing to go to Landstuhl again. "It's a small amount I can do to help the country and to help the kids, the young people, who've been hurt there," Dr. Morgan said. "It's particularly rewarding, but troublesome to see such young people injured so seriously."