April 18, 2013

War medicine is helping Boston bomb victims

The Associated Press

The bombs that made Boston look like a combat zone have also brought battlefield medicine to their civilian victims. A decade of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has sharpened skills and scalpels, leading to dramatic advances that are now being used to treat the 13 amputees and nearly a dozen other patients still fighting to keep damaged limbs.

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In this April 15, 2013 photo, an injured person is helped on the sidewalk near the Boston Marathon finish line following an explosion in Boston. The bombs that made Boston look like a combat zone have also brought battlefield medicine to their civilian victims. A decade of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has sharpened skills and scalpels, leading to dramatic advances that are now being used to treat the 13 amputees and nearly a dozen other patients still fighting to keep damaged limbs. (AP Photo/MetroWest Daily News, Ken McGagh, File)

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In this Monday, May 28, 2012 file photo, U.S. Army Capt. Dan Berschinski, foreground, uses prosthetic legs to stand on the field before a baseball game between the St. Louis Cardinals and Atlanta Braves in Atlanta. Nearly 2,000 American troops have lost a leg, arm, foot or hand in Iraq or Afghanistan, and their sacrifices have led to advances in the immediate and long-term care of survivors, as well in the quality of prosthetics that are now so good that surgeons often chose them over trying to save a badly mangled leg. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

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FOR MORE INFORMATION, visit our special section covering the Boston bombings.

"The only field or occupation that benefits from war is medicine," said Dr. David Cifu, rehabilitation medicine chief at the Veterans Health Administration.

Nearly 2,000 American troops have lost a leg, arm, foot or hand in Iraq or Afghanistan, and their sacrifices have led to advances in the immediate and long-term care of survivors, as well in the quality of prosthetics that are now so good that surgeons often chose them over trying to save a badly mangled leg.

Tourniquets, shunned during the Vietnam War, made a comeback in Iraq as medical personnel learned to use them properly and studies proved that they saved lives. In Boston, as on the battlefield, they did just that by preventing people from bleeding to death.

Military doctors learned and passed on to their civilian counterparts a surgical strategy of a minimal initial operation to stabilize the patient, followed by more definitive ones days later, an approach that experience showed offered the best chance to preserve tissue from large and complex leg wounds.

At the same time, wartime demand for prosthetics has led to new innovations such as sophisticated computerized knees that work better than a badly damaged leg ever would again.

"This is a clear case where all of the expertise that was gained by prosthetic manufacturers was gained from the wars. It's astonishing how well they function and the things people can do with these prostheses," said Dr. Michael Yaffe, a trauma surgeon at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

The hospital has performed amputations on three blast victims so far. A few other patients there may yet need them. Yaffe is a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserves, and many other doctors treating Boston blast victims also have had military training.

Besides the three at Beth Israel, five patients who have lost a total of eight limbs are at Boston Medical Center; four who each lost a leg are at Massachusetts General and one who lost one limb is at Brigham and Women's Hospital.

The military partnered with the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons to train doctors throughout the United States on advances learned from the wars, said Dr. Kevin Kirk, an Army lieutenant colonel who is chief orthopedic surgeon at San Antonio Military Medical Center.

Help, too, has come from Israel, which for decades has dealt with the aftermath of Palestinian bombs, like the ones in Boston, often laden with nails, ball bearings and other metals.

"Unfortunately, we have great expertise," said Dr. Pinchas Halpern, director of emergency medicine at Tel Aviv's Sourasky Medical Center.

Halpern, who gave lectures in 2005 at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Massachusetts General about responding to attacks, has been in email contact with doctors in Boston this week.

Among the topics he covered in his lectures were how to coordinate ambulances to distribute the wounded to area hospitals according to their type of injury, performing more CT scans than usual to locate deep shrapnel wounds, and ways to identify and classify wounds. Dr. Paul Biddinger of Mass General's emergency department said the hospital took much of Halpern's advice.

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Additional Photos

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In this Thursday, Oct. 4, 2012 file photo, U.S. Marine Cpl. Daniel Riley, 21, navigates the steps outside his apartment on his prosthetic legs in San Diego, Calif. Riley lost both legs to an IED in Afhganistan. Nearly 2,000 American troops have lost a leg, arm, foot or hand in Iraq or Afghanistan, and their sacrifices have led to advances in the immediate and long-term care of survivors, as well in the quality of prosthetics that are now so good that surgeons often chose them over trying to save a badly mangled leg. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)

  


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