Doctor on Duty

A Boston-trained Army surgeon finds satisfaction overseas patching up some of the war’s most severely wounded troops.

By Mary Wiltenburg  |  This article appeared in The Boston Globe Magazine, April 29, 2007

Some of the Iraq war’s fiercest fighting happens on its German front: the US military hospital at Landstuhl. Here, on a fortified hill southwest of Frankfurt, Colonel Stephen Flaherty heads a trauma team as war-weary as the troops it saves. The Norwell-born surgeon moves amid disinfectant smells and tangled tubes, piecing together patients who yesterday were battling insurgents in Baghdad and Kabul – and today battle for their lives. It is hard, wrenching work, he says, but worth it. In 20 years of trauma care, Flaherty has never felt such a bond with his patients. “These guys were all [hurt] doing the right thing for our country and, I believe, for the world,” he says. “That makes you want to take care of them.”

Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, America’s largest military hospital in Europe, is halfway home for soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. On average, 25 patients from the war zones are admitted each day, 38,000 altogether in the past five years.

Since Flaherty arrived in August, he has been struck by the fact that his severely wounded patients are surviving their injuries – injuries that probably would have killed them in previous wars. Eighty-five percent of those wounded in battle have had arms or legs pierced by bullets, shredded by shrapnel, or blown off by mortar fire. Some veterans return home with only one limb or with burns over 80 percent of their bodies. Even so, Flaherty says, most are reluctant to complain. He has learned to question patients carefully about pain. “They don’t want to admit it; that’s part of the nature of young soldiers,” he says. “You have to let them know that it’s OK to hurt.”

On the orthopedics ward, where service members wake from artificial sleep to find a leg, a foot, a hand missing, Specialist Eugene DeNeutte is learning that lesson. This winter, the powerfully built soldier arrived from Iraq with his arm in a sling, his thigh dressed in gauze, and his forehead and left eyelid embroidered with 40 black stitches. Four days before, the 26-year-old from a tough side of New Haven was in a Humvee in Baqubah when it was hit with a makeshift bomb. He and another soldier were wounded; a third was killed.

A day into his stay at Landstuhl, Flaherty’s patient is trying to stay upbeat. “I’m not paralyzed, and I’m not dead, so it’s a blessing,” DeNeutte says.

On his injured thigh, a high-tech suction dressing drains fluid away from the wound. When Flaherty examined him yesterday, DeNeutte was unable to lift his bad leg. Today, with effort, he moves it a few inches off the bed.

Flaherty praises his progress. The 45-year-old doctor has graying hair, a sleep-deprived squint, and a jocular tenderness. “Looks like you’re in for some physical therapy,” he tells DeNeutte, bending over the damaged leg. “And you know physical therapy is called the ‘Little Shop of Horrors.’ ”

“I’m a weight lifter, sir,” DeNeutte says. “I’m used to it.”

The surgeon’s preparation started with undergraduate and medical studies at Tufts University and initial military training for active duty at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. After a trauma fellowship at Boston City Hospital, he went on to leadership roles at military hospitals in Texas and North Carolina. But on September 10, 2001 – after 13 years of military life – Flaherty was ready to quit the Army. With only peace on the political horizon, the career trauma surgeon foresaw little professional future with the service. Then four planes made short, world-altering flights, and Flaherty figured a war would follow. He stayed on, and spent last year in Baghdad directing military trauma care for Iraq and Afghanistan.

Now, amid towering pines and protected by fences and bomb-sniffing dogs that guard the base at Landstuhl, Flaherty fights a private battle: to be positive but honest in a patient’s most fearful hour. Often it falls on him to explain to frantic families what has happened. The hardest part, he says, is seeing the hope in soldiers he has struggled to patch up, who don’t yet know just how badly they are hurt. “They want to hear that everything’s going to be OK. They want to hear they’ll be whole like they were before,” he says. “We have to tell them that things are going to be different.”

And not just for the wounded. Since coming to Landstuhl, where he lives with his wife and two children, Flaherty has been rethinking his own professional life. Moved by the spirit and sacrifice of his patients, the accomplished surgeon is now considering a future with the Veterans Affairs Administration, taking long-term care of the service members he has treated here. “I never saw myself as a VA surgeon,” he says, “but the more time I spend with these guys and anticipating their further care, the more I think maybe I could be one, after all.”

Mary Wiltenburg is a Robert Bosch Foundation Fellow covering the US military in Germany for Der Spiegel magazine. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

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