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Published: Monday, 9/26/2011

Doctor’s PowerPoint brings home the horrors of war


War is a vicious, scary, stinking thing. It kills, it maims. It is not user-friendly.

It is a cruel game conceived and overseen by older leaders who send their best and their strongest off to fight. Some of their young countrymen don’t make it back alive. Others come home with bodies so broken their lives are forever changed.

In some parts of this world, it is a price despots willingly pay for domination. In this country, it is a price we pay for freedom. It is also a price few Americans truly comprehend and appreciate, which is why you need to meet Dr. Anthony Comerota.

Dr. Comerota is director of the Jobst Vascular Institute at Toledo Hospital. He is a skilled surgeon whose expertise and research have contributed to the development of new treatments for vascular disease.

After 30 years in the surgical suite, he thought he had seen it all. Then in August of last year, he spent 16 days in Germany at the U.S. Army’s Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, trying to repair the battered and shredded bodies of soldiers who were gravely wounded in battle, most of them flown in from Afghanistan.

Landstuhl isn’t M*A*S*H. No Hawkeye Pierce. No Cpl. Maxwell Klinger. Landstuhl is a military hospital, one of the best, and it is about saving lives.

There are many to save.

Four or five times a week during Dr. Comerota’s volunteer deployment, giant C-17 planes called C-Cats (for Critical Care Air Transport) brought gravely wounded U.S. troops from the horrors of war to the caring embrace of the medical staff at Landstuhl. Each time, another round of surgeries would commence.

Of the 16 days he was there, Dr. Comerota was in surgery 14 days. His specialty, vascular surgery, is in short supply in the military, so his skills were welcomed and desperately needed.

He remembers the gratitude of the troops he helped, as well as their determination to return to their units, even if their injuries were so severe they would not see combat again.

“They would thank us so much for being there, for helping them,” Dr. Comerota recalls. “But what we were doing was nothing compared to what they had sacrificed. It was a very humbling experience.”

What they had sacrificed, in many cases, was an arm or a leg. Frequently, the devastation to the human body was unlike anything he’d seen before. Amputation was often the safest and best route when the damage was so substantial that tissue could not be restored to functionality.

Dr. Comerota quickly became a huge fan of the military surgeons he worked alongside, especially West Point graduate John Oh. A major at the time and now a lieutenant colonel, Dr. Oh has become something of a legend at Landstuhl for his role in a harrowing experience on duty at a field hospital in Afghanistan.

A soldier riding in a convoy was hit by a rocket-powered grenade that penetrated the side of his vehicle and slammed into his midsection but did not detonate. Despite the obvious risk of an explosion, a helicopter pilot violated policy to transport the soldier to Dr. Oh’s field hospital.

Dr. Oh immediately evacuated the place and asked for volunteers to assist in surgery. After many tense minutes, the grenade, its rocket tail still protruding, was removed. Today the young man is alive and well.

It was not uncommon, Dr. Comerota explains, for three or four surgeons of different specialties to operate on a patient at the same time. “It was remarkable to witness the incredible teamwork on a daily basis.”

Such are the men and women who provide medical care for our wounded warriors overseas. Dr. Comerota is determined to see them and the soldiers they treat get the recognition they deserve, So he has put together a PowerPoint presentation on his experience at Landstuhl that he’s willing to share.

He recently presented his program — including an Army video of the rocket-grenade surgery — to the downtown Toledo Rotary Club. Some 300 Rotarians sat in stunned silence as the photos dissolved from one gruesome injury to the next.

Why include such graphic images?

“We all have our opinions about war, and whether the United States should be participating or not,” he explains. “But putting our political opinions aside, we have to recognize the contributions of our servicemen and women.”

Dr. Comerota remains profoundly and forever changed by Landstuhl. “It allows you to reprioritize your life and understand what’s important,” he says.

Will he be going back? As soon as it can be arranged, he says, although “our best hope is that the need will diminish.”

The soldiers gave their permission to have their injuries documented in his presentation. It is not for the squeamish, but it is something we all should see. War is hell.

Thomas Walton is a retired editor and vice president of The Blade. His column appears every other Monday.

Contact him at: twalton@theblade.com

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