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A Shock Wave of Brain Injuries

What's baffling is the Pentagon's failure to work with Congress to provide a steady stream of funding for research on TBIs. Meanwhile, the high-profile firings of top commanders at Walter Reed have shed light on the woefully inadequate treatment for troops. In these circumstances, soldiers face a struggle to get the long-term rehabilitation necessary for a TBI. At Walter Reed, Macedo said, doctors have chosen to medicate most TBI patients, even though cognitive rehabilitation, including brain teasers and memory exercises, seems to hold the most promise for dealing with the disorder.

Oddly enough, having more military patients than can be adequately treated is, in terms of warfare, a gruesome kind of success. These are the war injured who once would have been the war dead. And it is the unexpected number of casualties who in a previous medical era would have been fatalities that has sunk the outpatient clinics at Walter Reed and left those in the VA system lost and adrift.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the ratio of wounded service members to fatalities is 16 to 1, if the definition of "wounded" is anyone evacuated from a combat zone. During the Vietnam War, according to the VA, the ratio was 2.6 to 1. U.S. troops no longer die from the kind of injuries that killed many thousands in Vietnam. The majority of combat deaths there occurred right where the soldier was hit. If you were going to die, you were dead before there was any need of a medevac chopper. If you'd had an arm or leg blown off, the chances were that you had also suffered a penetrating chest or abdominal wound and would bleed to death waiting to be taken to the nearest surgical hospital.

But if the bleeding could be staunched and you were still breathing when the medics got to you, the odds on survival were in your favor. The military medicine practiced in Vietnam wasn't so different from what World War II medics practiced: Stop the bleeding and hope for the best until the helicopter shows up.

It wasn't until October 1993, when a U.S. combat assault team rappelled down from a helicopter into a 72-hour gunfight in the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia, that the notion of military medicine changed from basic life support to intensive care. In that siege situation, medics had no choice but to care for a growing number of wounded on their own, because evacuation was impossible. But without clear intensive-care procedures, they ran out of medications and fluids to treat the most severely injured.

In the civilian world, trauma medicine had progressed throughout the 1970s and '80s, well past the simple expedients of tourniquet, plasma and keeping an airway open. Mogadishu forced the military to abandon the last of its medical practices from Vietnam. It was time to teach the medics a new trade.

Pentagon officials increased the training period for a 91W, or combat medic, from 10 to 16 weeks. Medics now trained on patient simulators that would "bleed to death" if blood loss was not stopped or "suffocate" if chest tubes weren't correctly placed or a tracheotomy wasn't performed within three minutes. Medics learned the new intensive-care theory of "hypotensive resuscitation," in which intravenous fluids are given only in minimal amounts solely to keep the heart pumping, as opposed to the old Vietnam method of keeping blood pressure elevated, which only added to blood loss. Medics today use better-designed tourniquets and hemostatic bandages -- dressings that act to stop bleeding for better hemorrhage control. They administer the latest non-opiate painkillers, which, unlike morphine and Demerol, do not slow breathing. This is the first war in which troops are very unlikely to die if they're still alive when a medic arrives.

Another large part of the 16-to-1 wounded-to-fatality ratio has to do with advances in body armor. Today's body armor is dramatically effective in preventing fatal wounds of the chest and upper abdomen. There is not an orthopedic or general surgeon in Iraq or Afghanistan who hasn't been astonished the first time a trooper with two missing limbs and a traumatic brain injury is carried off in a chopper and the surgeon removing the armor cannot find a scratch from the chin to the groin.

But the unseen damage can be long-lasting. Most of the families of our wounded that I have interviewed months, if not years, after the injury say the same thing: "Someone should have told us that with these closed-head injuries, things would not really get all that much better."

Now in its fifth year, the Iraq conflict is not a war of death for U.S. troops nearly so much as it is a war of disabilities. The symbol of this battle is not the cemetery but the orthopedic ward and the neurosurgical unit. The men and women inside those units have come home alive but missing arms and legs, many unable to see or hear or remember who they were before being hit by a roadside bomb. Survival clearly represents as much of a revolution in military medicine as does the dominance of the suicide bomber and the roadside bomb in the age of "shock and awe." But now both the medical profession and the country are left to play a terrible game of catch-up.

Ronald Glasser is a pediatric nephrologist and the author of " Wounded: Vietnam to Iraq," published last year. From 1968 to 1970, he was deployed at the U.S. Army Hospital at Camp Zama, Japan, treating U.S. soldiers wounded in Vietnam.


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