AUSTIN, Texas – (May 22, 2015) – Memorial Day is about remembering American servicemen and women who made the ultimate sacrifice. Within Ascension Seton, we have former military surgeons who served during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. They and their teams, in service to our country, made it possible for many service men and women to survive – and to still be with us today, to honor those who did not survive.
Now, they serve our community, possessing invaluable medical skills and a wealth of experience, ready to deal with whatever trauma case comes into a Ascension Seton emergency room.
This is a story about four of them.
By Adrienne Leyva
Listening to their war stories makes your chest tighten-followed by a feeling of gratitude and, frankly, awe. In honor of Memorial Day, we’re shining a light on four of Ascension Seton’s Level I trauma surgeons whose life-saving skills have served our country: (left to right on photo) Drs. John Uecker, Carlos Brown, Jayson Aydelotte, and John Sabra.
All four benefitted from scholarships that helped fund their medical education-Aydelotte from the U.S. Army and Brown, Sabra, and Uecker from the U.S. Navy. And all four would find themselves deployed to austere settings that put their skills to the test.
Surgeons in Service
Sabra knew he wanted to join the Navy and become a surgeon, like his father. He was new to active duty when the USS Cole was bombed, and 9/11 was less than a year later.
“I was actually deployed on 9/11 to serve as a trauma surgeon aboard the USS Bataan, which was carrying Marines to Afghanistan,” Sabra said. “It was an anxious time. We were all chomping at the bit to do something to help our country.”
His Fleet Surgical Team operated on injured soldiers who were brought to the carrier from Afghan combat zones.
“Just being around soldiers who are putting their lives on the line, and who are counting on you to help them … well, that’s a job you are honored to do,” Sabra said.
“I vividly remember one incident with 25 or more casualties. A bomb had struck these Afghan fighters, our allies with the Northern Alliance,” he recalled. “Many of the injuries were devastating. My team operated on these guys for two continuous days. As they recovered, they were overwhelmed with gratitude.”
In 2003, Sabra was aboard the USS Kearsarge off the coast of Iraq at the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He led a Fleet Surgical Team fully staffed with all types of surgeons-trauma, neurology, orthopedic.
“We were ready to take on anything,” he said, “and it was around this time that things began changing. More surgeons, like Dr. Uecker and Dr. Brown, were on the ground, in combat zones, stabilizing soldiers before they were evacuated for care.”
Uecker, the son of a naval officer and a Navy buddy of Sabra’s, was part of a surgical unit attached to the First Marine Division in 2003.
“Our unit was very mobile,” he said. “Tents would go up, tents would come down. We moved to at least 13 different locations across Iraq, caring for injured Marines and Iraqi civilians. I performed many surgeries, often stabilizing casualties with open fractures to their limbs or shrapnel injuries before they were transported to USNS Mercy or other hospital ships.”
Uecker recalls his first day treating casualties. During that time, the big concern was the possibility of chemical warfare. Everyone on the surgical team wore full protective gear and gas masks.
“It was 120 degrees. And now imagine us in all that gear,” he said. “My anesthesiologist basically began drowning from the sweat collecting in his gas mask. We noticed others around us weren’t struggling to breathe the air, so we quickly shed ourselves of it.
“There were struggles every day, but the toughest days were those taking care of kids. I didn’t expect that.
“One day, a child arrived with a severe head injury,” Uecker recalled. “We didn’t have a neurosurgeon on our team, so I asked neurosurgeon Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who was there as a CNN medical correspondent, to operate. He did, but the child could not survive his injuries.”
Brown and Aydelotte saw even heavier action. They were on tour in Iraq during 2006-2007 when 150,000 or more American soldiers were on the ground. That year was called the deadliest period in U.S. history since the Tet Offensive in Vietnam.
Brown was the trauma surgeon for a surgical unit based in Ramadi, dubbed by TIME® magazine as the deadliest place in Iraq. Aydelotte, a third generation serviceman, was chief of trauma surgery at the 28th Combat Support Hospital in Baghdad, the busiest of all hospitals.
“The high volumes and severity of injuries-30, 40, 50 at a time-it was like nothing I had ever seen,” Brown recalled. “I had been a trauma surgeon at L.A. County-USC Medical Center, the busiest trauma center there is, but that just doesn’t even compare.
“It was an intense, emotionally charged situation, for sure. Anytime I was taking care of a wounded American soldier was high pressure. We were wearing the same uniform. It was like operating on a family member every time. But it was also the greatest privilege and honor of my life.”
Brown would stabilize soldiers with life-threatening injuries before they were evacuated to hospitals in Balad or Baghdad. He didn’t know it at the time, but the same soldiers he triaged and stabilized would be operated on by Aydelotte in Baghdad.
“I was working on patients who had just been worked on by Dr. Brown,” Aydelotte said. “Pretty wild. We didn’t discover this until I joined the surgical team at University Medical Center Brackenridge in 2013, and we started talking.
“Soldiers would go from the combat zone to our hospital to the Air Force hospital in Balad to Germany, and finally to Walter Reed (National Military Medical Center) in (Washington) D.C., within 36 to 48 hours. The mass and quick movement of casualties across continents was a medical innovation of Operation Iraqi Freedom.”
This was a necessity due to the number of casualties. At least twice a week, Aydelotte would see the combat hospital overwhelmed by the volume of patients.
“Being a surgeon in wartime is a surreal experience,” he said. “There were so many people and not enough places for them. They’d be in the halls, on the floors.
But you had to keep pushing through. You were there to provide the best care you could to save these American lives. The strong camaraderie helped. I’ll never experience anything quite like that again. It was second to none.”
Surgeons Now Serving Austin
These four surgeons are among the team that provides Level I trauma care at UMC Brackenridge and will move to Dell Ascension Seton Medical Center at The University of Texas, the new home for adult trauma care in Central Texas, when it opens in 2017.
They say their experiences during combat have made them better surgeons for our community.
Aydelotte said he keeps calm, always.
“Because of the experiences I had, nothing gets my heart rate over 50,” he said. “I can take on anything and not be surprised, not be scared.”
“I think what really translates well in trauma care are the real-life experiences you have with mass casualties, quickly assessing injuries and prioritizing care,” Uecker said. “You feel like, if you can operate on severe injuries in such a grim setting, if you can do that, you have the confidence to take on whatever injuries come.”
Brown echoes that idea,
“That practice with mass casualties has made me more comfortable to handle anything that comes through the trauma center’s doors,” he said. “I’m definitely better at my craft.”
For Sabra, it’s all about teamwork.
“I’ve got a better appreciation for what teamwork means, in every sense of the word,” he said. “If someone needs your help, there’s no question or hesitation. The answer is an immediate ‘yes.’
“Our entire surgical team at Brack is cut from this cloth. And as we get ready to transition to our new hospital, you can count on core teams like ours to make it successful.”
Each of these surgeons has since resigned their commissions. And each carries lasting memories and admiration for the bravery of our U.S. troops.
Ascension Seton and Ascension Seton Fund salute these amazing surgeons, all veterans, and those who serve today with such courage, and we honor the memory of all those who made the ultimate sacrifice in service to our country.
You Can Help Build a New Home for Level I Trauma Care at Dell Ascension Seton Medical Center at The University of Texas
Now your gifts to help build Ascension Seton’s new teaching hospital will be doubled, dollar for dollar up to $25 million, thanks to a generous challenge grant from the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation. More information is available at Ascension Seton Fund’s Future of Care website.