Surgery Under Fire

March 15, 2004

Fran Simon
Phone: (504) 588-5221

Trauma surgeon Mary Jo Wright works the front lines of Tulane University Hospital and Clinic and Charity Hospital, a Level 1 (the highest level) trauma center, where she commonly takes care of patients with multiple gunshot wounds.

surgeryYet, when Wright went on active duty with the U.S. Army in Iraq last year, it was a life-changing experience. An associate professor of surgery, Wright received a Bronze Star Medal for leading a special surgical unit of 20 through a combat zone in Iraq.

Wright returned to Tulane in mid-February, after working in the line of fire for nine months. As she walked the medical school hallway, senior members of the surgery faculty came out of their offices to welcome her back.

There was surgery chair Robert Hewitt, who served active duty during Vietnam in the early '60s. And Martin Litwin, who worked in the Surgeon General's Office during the Vietnam War.

"I deployed people like you," he told Wright. Norman McSwain, chief of trauma surgery, also teased Wright good-naturedly. Wright says she and McSwain, her boss and mentor, share the same viewpoint about caring for trauma victims. "The patient comes first, no matter what is going on in your life. This is somebody's daughter, son, father or mother."

Trained in weapons as part of her service in the reserves, Wright must stay in the reserves eight more years to pay back her obligation--two years in the reserves for each year of support during her residency training and trauma/ critical care fellowship. As commander of a forward surgical team, Wright led her special unit in soft-sided Humvees from Kuwait to Balad. The team was expected to set up a field hospital in a little over an hour, with one emergency room/triage bed, one operating table, and one intensive care bed.

After setting up, the field hospital expanded to two emergency beds, two operating tables and eight intensive care beds, which at times were all full. The doctors, nurses, nurse anesthetists and other medical personnel lived in tents. The most difficult part of her service was the stress of constant gunfire.

"The most unnerving aspect was that our unit drove for three days with no security protection. We were expected to take care of ourselves," Wright says. "The enemy had IEDs, improvised explosive devices, that they could detonate from a distance. So as we drove over a rock or a dead animal in the road, it might blow up."

Or live grenades might be thrown into a vehicle. "I was prepared for the trauma injuries, because of my work at Charity," she says. "But this was not the same as Charity. Here, we see a gunshot wound to the leg; there we would see a leg virtually blown off. The wound would require multiple operations."

Mortars were fired at them as they performed surgery on the wounded. They learned to grab their helmets, bulletproof vests and weapons, and work as quickly as possible. Because of the Geneva Convention and the physician's Hippocratic Oath, Wright and her medical unit took care of the injured enemy as well as U.S. soldiers. "They were patients, just like everyone else." Back at Tulane, Wright's first on-call duty was the Sunday of the Krewe of Bacchus parade.

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