Patients teaching doctor history of war

Published: May 26, 2007  |  Source: origin.dfw.com
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At Walter Reed, he treats amputees, soldiers with brain and spinal injuries from battles in Iraq and Afghanistan

WASHINGTON – When the Army doctor walked into the musty hospital room, the patient, strapped in a neck brace, eyed his uniform, looking for the patch on the right shoulder that would signify that the doctor, too, had been in combat.

But Dr. Brandon Goff doesn’t have one. He’s never been to war. War comes to him.

Goff, a major, has spent this war in Wards 57 and 58 of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, where as director of patient Rehabilitation he treats soldiers who’ve suffered amputations, traumatic brain injuries and spinal cord injuries. At 35, he’s an unintended historian of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He knows that improvised explosives in Iraq are bigger now because he’s seeing more patients with both legs blown off above the knee, not just one below the knee.

He thinks that insurgents first acquired especially lethal explosively formed projectiles last spring, because that’s when he saw his first patient who’d been wounded in such an attack.

And he thinks that brain trauma from explosions could be the cause of the abnormal bone growths that soldiers wounded in this war have around their amputated limbs. The phenomenon didn’t exist in previous wars.

While patients, resident doctors, families, politicians, reporters, celebrities, foreign delegations and medical researchers all have walked his halls since the war began, no one stays very long. Goff does.

Most in his wards live the horror of losing a limb once. Goff relives it with every patient who’s come through his ward. More than 1,000 of them. And counting.

During World War II, the U.S. Army had more than 100 hospitals to deal with war injuries; in Vietnam, there were around 15. Today, there are three.

Goff’s day starts anywhere from 4:30 to 7:30 a.m., and he spends the next several hours walking the halls, from the ward to the rehabilitation center to his office to where his resident doctors and physician’s assistants work.

An amputee spends two months in Goff’s ward on average and a year on the Walter Reed campus relearning Motor functions. Families move in and work with the loved one through Physical Therapy. Though Goff can’t remember every name, he remembers the details of their recoveries. That one has been here for 200 days, he said about one sleeping soldier. This one isn’t recovering well from his brain injury; he can’t remember things, he said about another in the physical therapy room.

Everywhere he goes in the hospital, Goff carries a batch of print-outs, often tattered by the end of the day, detailing what brought the young amputees to his ward.

Goff, 35, from Tyler, Texas, isn’t from a military family.

Like many of the doctors at Walter Reed, he joined the military to help pay for medical school.

He wears Army boots and a uniform, but not a white doctor’s coat. Before he arrived at Walter Reed in 2003, he’d worked at the Pentagon. He treated the wounded there on Sept. 11.

He’s still amazed that he didn’t feel the explosion when the plane hit just one building section away; that when he saw a man covered in ash walking toward him he still thought it was a drill; that an admiral turned to him, a lowly Army captain, and asked, “What should I do?”

“I told him your job is to stand on the road and commandeer vehicles,” Goff said, laughing. “He just looked at me, smiled and said, `I can do that.’ ”

By Nancy A. Youssef
McClatchy Newspapers