Toledo doctor returns from treating wounded soldiersWritten by Caitlin McGlade | | email@example.com
They came in by airplane, lifted from the gruesome grasp of war.
Sometimes they came fairly stabilized. Other times they came as emergencies. Some were missing parts of their faces. Others were riddled with bullet wounds.
For two weeks, it was Dr. Steven Gale’s job to mend them. The vascular surgeon who works at Toledo Hospital has returned from a volunteer program through the Society for Vascular Surgeons that sends doctors overseas to treat soldiers wounded in Afghanistan.
The soldiers are first rescued from the battlefield and taken to a hospital nearby where doctors secure their vitals and treat immediate problems. They are then sent to the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, where surgeons prepare them to be sent back to America.
The Society for Vascular Surgeons has sent about 80 doctors to the medical center since the program’s inception in 2007. Society members are so eager to go that there is a waiting list and there has yet to be a two-week span left unfilled by a volunteer, said Sue Crosson-Knutson, spokesperson for the society.
“The need of a vascular surgeon is to connect arms or legs and there are things being done now that they could not have done in Vietnam,” Knutson said.
Dr. Gale knows this all too well. The draft sent him to Vietnam just after he had graduated from college. A platoon leader for the 173rd Airborne Brigade at Dak To in 1967, young Gale witnessed more than 300 soldiers get killed or wounded.
“I felt very helpless at the time because I could do nothing to prevent this from happening,” he said.
He had every intention of returning to the war front after he came home. But the reception he got upon arrival to the United States – whether from his friends or the cold shoulder of American peoples’ soured notions toward the war – dissuaded him.
So he went running a lot. He avoided fights with protestors. And he turned to medical school. He became a surgeon and felt like he could accomplish something worthwhile again.
It wasn’t until the war in the Middle East struck that he started noticing a void – this need to go back into a war-setting and help people.
“I kind of felt guilty that I hadn’t done more,” he said.
He realized he could use the very tool that gave him purpose after returning from Vietnam to make an impact now.
And what a difference he could make now, as a surgeon, compared to the 1960s. During his two-week volunteer period, he cleaned wounds, removed tissue, cut out non-healing portions of wounds, redressed, repeated until the soldiers were ready to fly home. Doctors then packed them in a plane with at least 140 pounds worth of respirators, IV-pumps, wound dressing, cardiac monitors and oxygen monitors and sent them on their way.
Perhaps the biggest medical difference is the emergence of the negative pressure vacuum system. The technology was invented in the 90s, Gale said. The system drains fluid and infection and helps to more easily heal the victim. Some soldiers would have six or seven of these on different sites of their bodies, Gale said.
He was also able to help jump start a vascular program that the medical center had wanted to initiate for a year and a half, he said.
He treated at least 12 patients. One didn’t make it home.
Even in the worst cases, Gale said he didn’t find himself dwelling on his brutal war memories.
“I just felt good that I had the skills to accomplish a little something to help these troops get back home,” he said. “When we were in the operating room we were not thinking about flashbacks. We were thing about, ‘let’s get this guy fixed up to the best of our ability, let’s get these dressings on, let’s get him off the table and let’s not keep him under anesthesia for too long and let’s get on to the next one.”
Gale said that he feels as though he has “come full circle” with respect to his time served in Vietnam. But this time, he was greeted with appreciation when he came home.
His wife and his daughter awaited him at the airport waving little American flags.