Alabama trauma surgeon goes to Ukraine to provide medical aid during war

An Alabama trauma surgeon and former commander of the US Army Institute of Surgical Research goes to Ukraine to help civilian hospitals cope with an influx of battlefield injuries.

dr. John Holcomb served in the military for 23 years before joining the faculty of the UAB Heersink School of Medicine in 2019. His military career included a deployment in Mogadishu, Somalia during a battle chronicled later in the book Black Hawk Down

Holcomb said surgical advances in recent decades have improved outcomes for people injured in combat. Some civilian hospitals in Ukraine had little experience treating wounds on the battlefield until the Russian invasion earlier this year.

“Trauma care in the United States has really changed quite a bit over the past twenty years. We’re just kind of done with 20 years of war,” Holcomb said. “The number of victims has definitely decreased. There are conflicts going on around the world involving the US military, but we are not seeing the casualties that we saw in Fallujah in 2006 and Afghanistan a few years ago.”

Holcomb works with a non-governmental agency called Global Surgical and Medical Support Group that provides surgeons and counseling in developing countries and conflict zones. Holcomb has already made two trips to Ukraine, but the upcoming visit will be his longest stay in the country.

The organization has rented a house in Lviv in western Ukraine and will rotate teams of medical providers who will stay for two weeks. Holcomb will lead a team while he is there.

“The hard-won lessons learned on the battlefield have been translated to the civilian world with tourniquets, with whole blood with CPR techniques, various surgical techniques, and have improved outcomes in the civilian world,” Holcomb said.

Holcomb said he and others will advise surgeons, nurses and paramedics on techniques and systems to improve care for injured people. His involvement with Ukraine began after a friend of his called in April to ask if he could help.

Lviv in western Ukraine is far from the front. But Holcomb said injured civilians from war-torn areas in the east have traveled to hospitals seeking care. Hospital officials have asked for help developing and implementing the most up-to-date trauma techniques.

One of their biggest needs is specialized medical care and equipment, Holcomb said. One example is the rods used to repair broken leg bones, which are scarce in Ukraine, he said.

“What we can do in Ukraine is help translate the lessons we learned on our battlefield and transfer it to theirs,” Holcomb said.

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