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Medical Merger Sweet as Babies' Breath

By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service

SAN ANTONIO, May 20, 1998 – Editor's note: This is a refiling of a previous story. It corrects the date of the merger.

Inside a bubble-like incubator, a tiny baby's chest vibrates rapidly as the infant takes in 720 breaths a minute.

The baby, born prematurely and weighing barely a pound, breathes with the aid of a high-frequency ventilator. The small puffs of air it takes in are less damaging than normal deeper breaths to its fragile, underdeveloped lungs.

At Wilford Hall, the Air Force's largest medical center and flagship of an Army-Air Force medical consortium, the ventilator represents the level of health care sophistication available to DoD beneficiaries. The high-tech baby saver probably wouldn't be there, however, without the merger of Army and Air Force medical assets.

"Before the 1995 merger of our and Brooke Army Medical Center's pediatric programs, the Air Force didn't train residents in pediatric pulmonary," said Air Force Dr. (Lt. Col.) Don McCurnin, 859th Medical Operations Squadron commander. "We absorbed an excellent staff from Brooke, and we are a stronger program because of the merger."

For example, the Army brought with it a center of excellence for cystic fibrosis, a disease that affects the lungs and digestive system. Now Wilford Hall operates a triservice cystic fibrosis network that benefits patients from all service branches with new medicine and trains residents in future cures, McCurnin said.

"We're very subspecialized for pediatrics and OB-GYN," he said. "We traditionally get referrals from all over the world, and the expertise the Army has brought to this department makes us that much more effective and valuable to DoD."

The merger eventually brought Army Dr. (Lt. Col.) Howard Heiman over to Wilford Hall, where he directs clinical neonatology -- the medical specialty covering children from newborns through two months old. Heiman takes pride in the impact he and his fellow soldiers have had on the quality of military medicine.

"We always cooperated from a distance," Heiman said of the Army medics' relationship with their crosstown Air Force counterparts. "Now, we provide an unrivaled subspecialty clinic, and the patients benefit. We're green and blue working together, and rank and status aren't as important as customer service."

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