Wartime trauma lessons from Navy, Baylor doctor

Dr. Stephen Burgher
Dr. Stephen Burgher
People often ask Dr. Stephen Burgher why he decided to re-enlist as a Navy commander in 2010, more than a decade after he last served.

“Are you some kind of war junkie?” they ask. “Are you going through a mid-life crisis?”

For Dr. Burgher, an emergency medicine physician on the staff at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas, there are several good answers

He missed serving with his brothers in arms. He felt the calling to serve his country in wartime. He appreciated the critical need for emergency medicine doctors.

And as much as anything else, he said, “I love our country and I love that our country still defends and protects freedom and democracy around the world.”

More than a year after a 10-month tour in Afghanistan, Dr. Burgher is sharing lessons of wartime trauma medical care with his colleagues. On the 13th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Dr. Burgher spoke before a few dozen of his peers at Baylor Dallas.

He shared stories of resilient patients who touched him deeply. That includes Army Ranger Cpl. Joshua Hargis, a double amputee who managed to salute his fellow Rangers from his hospital bed during a Purple Heart ceremony. An iconic image of that salute went viral and it was dubbed the “salute seen around the world.”

“Serving guys like Josh just made it a real privilege,” Dr. Burgher said.

The other reason why Dr. Burgher shares the story of Hargis is because he likely would not have survived in any previous American military conflict. Survival rates of injured military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan improved dramatically, as compared to prior conflicts, to more than 90 percent. At Dr. Burgher’s military hospital in Kandahar, the survival rate for those who made it there alive was 98 percent, he said.

Those numbers rose even though the injuries in the more recent wars were more severe, particularly because of the devastating injuries caused by improvised explosive devices.

Among the reasons for the higher survival rates, according to Dr. Burgher:

  • Improved body armor, including vests and helmets
  • Armored vehicles designed to better endure explosions
  • Pre-hospital care and training, including the widespread use of proper tourniquets to keep the wounded from bleeding to death
  • Quick transportation to hospitals by medevac
  • Damage Control Resuscitation, meaning rapid control and reversal of blood loss and stabilization of injuries (e.g. stop bleeding and provide blood products to replace what is lost)

The lessons learned from wartime medicine are helping improve care in emergency rooms across America. The response to the Boston Marathon attacks is one example.

“The kinds of injuries we saw in Boston were the same kind of injuries that we saw and it would be the same principles,” Dr. Burgher said.

That’s why he’s taking the time to share his experience with his colleagues. Still, may wonder why Dr. Burgher chose to leave the comfort of his native city of Dallas and his family to go back to a war zone.

“For me, it’s about the guys we serve,” he said. “It’s about the guys we serve with. It’s about freedom and it’s about making a difference in this world, even if it’s one person at a time.”

Dr. Stephen Burgher Kandahar

About the author

Scott Goldstein
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Scott is a former Dallas newspaper reporter. His father and two brothers are doctors, so healthcare is his family business.

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Wartime trauma lessons from Navy, Baylor doctor