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Symposium Draws Top Medical Professionals

By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Nov. 9, 2009 – The conference room was filled with doctors, nurses, scientists and top officials, all subject-matter experts in their respective medical fields.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
U.S. Marine Gen. James Amos, assistant commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, gives the opening keynote address at the Partnership for Military Medicine Symposium inside the Omni Shoreham Hotel, Washington, D.C., Nov. 6, 2009. DoD photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Molly A. Burgess

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Some wore military uniforms, others business suits. Some were versed on the science of traumatic brain injuries. Others were veterans of combat hospital trauma.

They gathered here Nov. 6 to discuss how to be better partners in research and care. For the good of the troops, both sides need to work together, they said.

But for all the slides, illustrations, videos and questions, the reality of such a partnership walked to the podium during lunch.

“I stand here today as an example of a miracle -- the power of military and civilian medicine coming together,” said Army Lt. Col. Gregory Gadson.

Gadson was the guest of award-winning singer Faith Hill at the Partnership for Military Medicine symposium, a two-day event aimed at promoting better cooperation between military and civilian research and medicine. Standing before the crowd on two of the most advanced prosthetic legs in the world, Gadson served as testament to benefits of a partnership between the two medical worlds.

“It makes it possible for me to live. But not only live, but stand here and talk to you today,” he said.

A roadside bomb in Iraq destroyed Gadson’s legs in May 2007. In the two years that have followed, he has tested some of the most advance prosthetic devices available.

Gadson was the first person to use the finished version of the Power Knee2, a next-generation powered prosthetic knee featuring new artificial intelligence and sensor technology that makes it possible for above-the-knee amputees to walk with increased confidence, safety and a more natural gait.

The Army officer became involved in the project when the designers asked him to walk on the original Power Knee produced in 2006. Gadson traveled to Iceland, where the designer is based, to participate in the development.

He praised both his military and civilian doctors for their efforts to “push the envelope” in advancing prosthetic devices.

“They realize that we can still be courageous, not only on the battlefield, but as we try to get our lives together,” Gadson said.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have produced similar advancements in other medical fields, officials at the seminar said. The lessons the military learns feed civilian medical professionals, and vice versa.

“Every major conflict since the civil war has produced improvements in military medicine that have also had a direct impact on civilian health,” said Ellen P. Embrey, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs and acting director of Tricare Management Activity, speaking at the symposium.

Medical lessons learned in wartime spurred the development of mobile hospitals and improved amputation procedures. They documented links between immediate treatment and survival and sanitation and infection.

In the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the enemy’s use of improvised explosive devices have led to advancements in treating injuries that in past wars would have been fatal, Embrey said.

The advancements have spread to the lowest level. In the field, new bandages are fielded that can stop severe bleeding almost instantly.

Even Gadson noted the advancements in the field first-aid kits from the time he served in the 1991 Gulf War until now. He went through 129 pints of blood the night of his injury. Gadson acknowledged that if he had suffered the same injuries in his first deployment, he likely would not be alive today.

The development of prosthetic devices has seen a revolution in the past eight years, Embrey said, including a hand that can be moved by thought, developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Other recent military medical advances include a portable sensor system that guides combat medics during resuscitation; robotic support for battlefield tele-surgery; and regenerative medicine that includes techniques that prompt the body to regenerate cells and tissues.

Embrey cited remarkable advances in head injury treatment, as well as facial reconstruction and efforts to identify and treat traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Defense Department officials would like to accelerate the translation of medical technology into deployed products, Embrey said, and collaboration with civilian partners accelerates this opportunity.

She cited a recent department initiative that offers special funding for medical programs for which research can be translated quickly into treatments for wounded warriors to restore form and function and help them reclaim independence. Recipients of the funds have to achieve clinical use within 18 months.

Last month, two civilian hospitals were awarded such funding -- one was for facial reconstruction and the second for surgical techniques that can precisely shape facial features.

But for all of the advances to date, Embrey said, the future includes closer cooperation between civilian and military medical professionals.

“Today, the military cannot make all of these advancements without collaboration with our civilian partners,” she said. “And the pace of making medical improvements depends on that collaboration.”

Contact Author

Ellen P. Embrey

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