Even at his own welcome home reception, Dr. Roy Danks is on the move.
The general surgeon at Cushing Memorial Hospital was visiting with staff and hospital supporters last Tuesday afternoon, but he said he also had patients to attend to that day.
But he admitted that being busy in Leavenworth, Kan., is a world apart from being busy in the place that for 90 days he called home — Afghanistan.
Danks has been a member of the U.S. Army Reserves for about five years.
He returned to the U.S. Feb. 19 from his most recent deployment to Forward Operating Base Salerno, Afghanistan, near that country’s border with Pakistan, where he served as a general trauma surgeon. By Feb. 29, he was back to work at Cushing.
“It has been easy,” to readjust, he said. “The hospital made it very easy to do and I have a really smooth running office. I feel like I’m back on my sleep pattern.”
Danks left on Veterans Day 2011 for his most recent 90-day deployment, having shipped out one other time — to Iraq in 2009 where he was a consultant for burn patients. Even with plenty of previous experience in the field of trauma surgery, Danks said the environment in Afghanistan could be trying.
“You don’t know from hour to hour, day to day, what’s going to come in and when,” he said.
The forward surgical team is often the first stop for patients who have sustained injuries on the battlefield, Danks said. So life and death decisions were often made and acted on quickly, without time for many of the tests that would normally precede an operation.
“It’s on the order, for the most part, of minutes,” Danks said.
He also said the FOB medical facilities don’t have things like CAT scanners, a tool used in most trauma centers stateside to pinpoint a diagnosis.
“Many patients end up going to the operating room simply because of the need to be sure that nothing is severely injured internally,” Danks said.
The nature of typical injuries was also different, according to Danks. He said while most might expect gunshot wounds to be the primary injury, that was not often the case.
“The majority of the injuries are explosion related, so they are these very high-energy related injuries that have shrapnel, fragmentation, traumatic amputations, head injuries, spine injuries, all in one patient,” Danks said. “So at any given time, you could end up working on blood vessels in the neck, opening their chest, opening their abdomen and amputating extremities, all in one patient.”
On some days, those patients would come fast — Danks recalled one particularly busy day when the FOB had 13 patients brought in following an improvised explosive device attack and the three general surgeons and one orthopedic surgeon on the team worked nonstop for eight hours to stabilize them.
Page 2 of 2 - More often than not, he said once stabilized, the patients would be flown out of theater for further treatment, with periodic video conferences letting the team at Salerno know about their patient’s condition.
Throughout his deployment, Danks said he was able to get some idea of what the Afghan people thought of the presence of the Americans. He said while many of the people he talked praised the efforts to build schools and roads, he could also sense the influence from the Taliban and neighboring Pakistan to decry American efforts.
Danks said his location near the southern border of Afghanistan near Pakistan did cause his wife, Corrie, to worry about his safety perhaps more than during his previous deployment to Iraq. Despite having Skype to communicate with his wife and 10 children, Danks said being away was difficult at times.
“Nothing replaces just being there,” he said.
However, professionally speaking, Danks said he feels the experience has made him a better surgeon, both by allowing him to better diagnose and treat trauma patients and by making him more resourceful.
“There’s always little wants and desire for things that you have at home, but that’s not reality for a deployed setting, and you get really good at making due with what’s there and it’s always enough,” he said. “They give you what you need.”
While that experience is valuable, Danks said it was never the primary motivation for his service.
“The reason I joined the Army in the first place was the feeling that I wanted to give something back and serve,” he said. “I really enjoy what I do when I’m there, and then coming back home and especially being able to work with members of the military in the Leavenworth community is important to me as well. I kind of have the best of both worlds.”