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Trauma surgeon Jamie Dunwoody is leaving the comfort of his North Vancouver home to operate on seriously injured soldiers in Afghanistan.
By Greg Hoekstra
Published June 30, 2011 — North Shore Outlook
Being a good surgeon, says Jamie Dunwoody, means being able stay focused even in the most trying times.
Whether there’s a critically injured young mother being wheeled into the operating room at Lions Gate Hospital, or a horrendously maimed soldier bleeding to death at Kandahar Airfied in Afghanistan, the mental process a surgeon follows is very much the same.
“You just know you have a job to do. You’ve become trained not to see it as horrific, comic-book type of violence,” Dunwoody explains, sitting at the kitchen table in his North Vancouver home.
“You see a limb attached to a person. You see a bone shattered, skin gone, muscles torn, or nerves not connected, and then you break it down. You go through the disciplined steps in your mind, and figure out how you need to treat this kind of injury.”
But, he adds, “you also can’t lose your humanity.”
In the past 14 years, Dunwoody has seen a great deal through his job as a surgeon. In addition to working at Lions Gate, Burnaby, and Squamish General hospitals, he’s also completed fellowships in Toronto, Australia, and at the R. Adams Shock Trauma Centre in Baltimore — one of the busiest trauma hospitals in one of the most violent cities in North America.
“Some nights there would be six or seven gunshot wounds,” he recalls. “I’m sure some of the things I learned at Shock Trauma will come in handy where I’m going.”
In a few more days, Dunwoody will be on the move again. This time, he’s headed overseas to Afghanistan as a member of the Canadian Forces.
For the next month, Dunwoody will work out of the Kandahar Airfield hospital, a bomb-proof structure with four operating rooms and 30 beds. His reasons for going, he says, are two-fold — he hopes to become a better trauma surgeon, and a better person.
“I want to support the soldiers and the people in Afghanistan,” he says. “I want to help them build a better country. I see this as a chance to grow, both professionally and personally.”
From a medical standpoint, being deployed to Afghanistan is very much like being sent to the “frontier,” Dunwoody says. Operating in the theatre of war will test both his steady hand and his sharp mind.
“It’s the ragged edge of medicine.”
Last June, Dunwoody completed six weeks of basic training, which elevated him from the role of reservist to a member of the army. He’s taken classes to help prepare him for life in a war zone and a combat extremity surgical course to prepare him for the types of traumatic injuries he will see on a daily basis. All that’s left now is packing his bags.
Dunwoody says much of the surgery he’ll be doing in Afghanistan is, in some ways, “old-fashioned.” There’s not as much equipment to use, and because there’s such a high risk of infection in wartime, the operations involve no internal fixations, such as screws or plates.
“It’s really just back to basics,” he says. “The key is to control the bleeding. Bleeding is the number one thing that will kill soldiers over there.”
It goes without saying that Dunwoody will see some gory things during his stint in Afghanistan, including the aftermath of roadside bombs and rocket attacks perpetrated by the Taliban.
In the First World War, he notes, it would sometimes take up to a week before troops could get to a hospital for medical attention. Now, it could take as little as 10 to 12 minutes before a patient is on his operating table with amputated limbs or wounds threatening to end his or her life.
It’s Dunwoody’s job to fix those problems before it’s too late. And it’s that kind of analytical troubleshooting that drew him to this career in the first place.
“I always loved buildings models and those type of things, and in some ways, orthopedic surgery is a lot like engineering,” he says. “Plus, I really enjoy traumatology. You have patients who come in and are lying there with such urgent need, and then you fix that, and you see that person walking around later. It’s such an amazing thing.”
Following his time in Afghanistan, Dunwoody says he hopes to apply what he’s learned in other global events. In particular, he wants to be able to lend a hand during times of crisis, such as the recent earthquakes in Japan, New Zealand and Haiti.
“It’s a chance to be a part of history. To participate in big world events,” he says. “I want to be able to look back and say ‘I was there, and I did my bit to help.’”
Postscript: Dr. Jamie Dunwoody recently landed at the Kandahar Airfield hospital, where he’ll spend the next month treating serious traumas and saving soldiers’ lives. “My first day I arrived at 0200. Went to bed at 0300 and was up at 0500 because of a rocket attack,” he wrote in an email Tuesday. Dunwoody has agreed to share his experiences in a follow-up story with The Outlook later this summer.
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