Each one a hero

Each one a hero

Alberto Betancourt

THE doctors and nurses at Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, say heroes walk the hallways of the facility’s fourth floor–the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research’s Burn Center.

“A burn is one of the most traumatic, demeaning and dehumanizing injuries a person can suffer,” said LTC Alfredo Montalvo, the Burn Center’s psychiatric clinical nurse specialist.

“But the patients here at the Burn Center inspire me. They’re not ashamed of their injuries,” Montalvo said. “When people stare at them, they say, ‘Go ahead, ask me what happened. Yeah, I was in Iraq and got burned.’ They wear their scars like red badges of courage.”

SGT Josh Forbess of the 101st Airborne Division’s 1st Battalion, 320th Field Artillery, has been at the Burn Center since November. He’s one of almost 100 patients from Operation Iraqi Freedom who were admitted to the center. Forbes was seriously burned when his helicopter went down in Mosul. Despite injuries that prevent him from completely closing his eyes, he is an inspirational spokesman for other patients.

“I know what they’re going through,” said Forbess. “I want to make sure they understand that no matter how bad it is, they can recover from it.”

Forbess said he doesn’t know where he gets his strength. But those who witness his positive attitude, watch him work hard during rehabilitation therapy and listen to him say he wants to get back to the Soldiers he deployed with so he can do some work, are awed by his determination.

“Never say quit–never say die,” he said. “The key to recovery is understanding that the staff wants to help, but you have to help yourself.”

CPT Travis Hedman, chief of physical rehabilitation at the Burn Center, said burn scar tissue is a tough adversary because it causes a lot of pain that can be devastating to the patient and result in emotional setbacks.

“The pain can cause patients to not be as compliant as they need to be when they exercise,” he said. “Additional pain medication may be necessary just to allow the patient to deal with rehabilitation.”

Hedman said therapists can work with a patient all day to improve his range of motion, only to find the next morning that the patient had maintained an unfavorable position all night and must begin again “at square one.”

That’s why specialists in each field regularly question each patient on the nature and extent of his pain.

“From the physicians and nurses to the rehabilitation staff–which includes both occupational and physical therapists–everyone needs to know what’s going on with the burn patient,” said Hedman. “Any change in the patient could affect each therapist’s approach to treatment.”

SPC Gabriel Garriga, of the Illinois National Guard’s 333rd Military Police Company, said he joined the Army shortly after the 2001 terrorist attacks partly out of patriotism and partly out of anger.

Garriga and his unit were part of the initial attack on Iraq, and after four months in country he was injured while manning a checkpoint. He was admitted If the center with severe burns over most of his body.

Twenty-three surgeries later, Garriga said he feels good compared to the eight months he spent in bed with terrible pain. He also said he’s tremendously grateful for the treatment he’s received at the Burn Center.

“It was very difficult when I saw him the first time,” Garriga’s mother said. “He was swollen, his hands looked like charcoal and if his intestines had not been removed they would’ve crushed his heart and lungs.”

Although Garriga said he feels pretty good now and has had a chance to go home and visit friends, something is bothering him.

“I wish I was still there with my unit,” he said. “I don’t feel good about being here in the States while they’re still fighting in Iraq.”

He said that at first the extent of his injuries caused him to ask “why me?” But the anger subsided quickly.

“I know other Soldiers have gone through similar pain in other wars,” he said, “I’m very proud that I went to Iraq and did everything I had to do for my country. I have no regrets, and I’ll go back if I have to.”

Garriga’s mother said she’s proud of her son and of all the Soldiers and parents who’ve been supporting their children involved in this war.

“Both of my sons joined the military after Sept. 11,” she said. “I’m very proud. I’m also very grateful and thankful to everyone at the Burn Center for helping my son live.”

Meanwhile, inside his small office, Montalvo reviewed his notes from the day’s rounds and repeated how proud he is of the burn patients.

“My appreciation for the simple things in life has increased,” he said. “We take so many things for granted–the ability to breathe without a tube in your throat, the ability to talk, or dress or bathe. The strength and courage of these Soldiers inspire me. Each one of them is a true hero.”

History of Care

THE U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research’s Burn Center at Fort Sam Houston is the Department of Defense’s only burn center.

Operational since 1949, it was only the second burn center in the nation at that time and one of the few burn centers in the world, said LTC Leopoldo Cancio, the center’s director.

During World War II burn injuries were handled by an organization known as the surgical research unit. After the war that agency was moved from New York to Fort Sam Houston.

After the war the center became involved in such other combat-casualty-care related problems as the use of blood products.

However, with the onset of the Cold War many military and medical experts were concerned that the country could be faced with a lot of burn casualties should there ever be a nuclear war, so the center began focusing on burns, Cancio said.

The center has participated in and led the way in many developments of modern burn care in the United States.

“We developed the burn recess citation formula for intravenous fluids and the effective topical burn creams to prevent burn-wound infection,” he said. “We also defined the nutritional needs of burn patients, and developed new types of mechanical ventilation to help those who’ve inhaled smoke.”

Besides treating military personnel, the center serves civilians in the South Texas region.

“The civilian patients allow us to maintain our ability to take care of wartime casualties,” said Cancio. “During peacetime, military patients are only a fraction of our daily workload.”–SFC Alberto Betancourt

COPYRIGHT 2004 Soldiers Magazine

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group