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The U.S. Navy SEALs; Faith in Humanity Restored   

A few years ago, a patient of mine and the father of 2 Navy SEALs, introduced me to the Navy SEAL Foundation. I’ve supported this terrific organization since, and in the process, have visited the SEAL training center on Coronado Island.  I have come to know several active SEALs.  I have two retired SEALs in my practice.  To a man, I’ve been extraordinarily impressed with every one of these individuals that I’ve had the pleasure to meet.      

About 18 months ago, I met another SEAL with his parents over dinner at the Trident Bar and Grill.  After a great evening, I told him that if he ever needed any medical help to give me a call.  In October of 2010, he took me up on my offer.  He e-mailed some graphic photos from Afghanistan.  One of his team members had suffered a severe blast injury to his left arm when a 40 mm grenade launcher misfired and blew up in his hands.  The military doctors were pessimistic about his prognosis.  There were more surgeries scheduled, but he asked if there was any way that I could help.     

Four months and 13 surgeries later, this 29-year-old SEAL, whom I’ll call “Z”, was told that there was nothing more that could be done to save his left arm.  The senior hand surgeon recommended that he have his left arm amputated.  Upon the request of the injured SEAL, I agreed to get involved.  I reviewed the medical records from Bethesda. The reports were indeed devastating.  However, after speaking to this injured SEAL by phone, and conferring with my surgical colleagues, I offered to assemble a medical team in Tucson to provide him with a second opinion.  If nothing else, even if our team agreed with the amputation, this young man would at least have the comfort of knowing that two teams of doctors were in agreement.  Members of the SEAL community, both active and retired, made calls to the SEAL command and this unusual request for a private second medical opinion was granted.  Four months after his injury, Z flew to Tucson with a Navy medical liaison to see what we had to say. 
On a Sunday afternoon, with some trepidation, I went to a local hotel where Z was staying to examine him before he was to be seen formally by our team.  I was concerned that we not offer him false hope.  However, what I saw when I examined him surprised me.  Though not a hand surgeon, I was impressed with some neurological function that I saw in 2 out of the 3 major nerves in his arm and hand.  To my surprise and delight, his findings on the exam were quite different from that which I had read about in the medical record.  I saw legitimate cause for hope and I was very anxious to have him seen by our expert hand surgeons.    

The following day, Z was examined by Dr. Tom Butler and Dr. Dave Siegel.  We had a group medical conference, including the doctors and a certified hand physical therapist.  Drs. Butler and Siegel examined him in great detail, concurred with my observations, and expressed real promise for a significant recovery of Z’s hand and arm function.  Our surgeons strongly disagreed with the prior recommendations to amputate the arm.  Instead, they recommended a very aggressive program of hand rehabilitation.  We reported our findings to the SEAL Command and offered an intensive, specialized physical therapy program here in Tucson on a pro bono basis.  Z returned to Virginia Beach, the SEAL Command reviewed our proposal, and he was sent back to Tucson on formal orders for 3 months of comprehensive treatment.    

We assembled a team including a specialized hand physical therapist, a strength and conditioning coach, a registered dietician along with the surgical and medical team.  Z worked intensely with Ann Von Kerseberg, a certified hand physical therapist, 5 days per week for 1-2 hours each day.  Z did strength training 4 times per week in my medical office gym with our strength and conditioning coach, Dennis Moore.  Ann and Dennis developed special prostheses for Z’s injured left hand, which allowed him to lift heavyweights in the gym.  A customized arm splint was crafted for Z, which allowed him to run without dislocating his shoulder so that he could regain his aerobic capacity.  He was followed closely by Drs. Butler and Siegel, who oversaw his progress and directed the physical therapist. 
By the end of his 3 months in Tucson, Z could grasp objects with his 3rd, 4th, and 5th digits.  His left shoulder and arm had become amazingly strong.   The return of sensation was slowly advancing down his arm below the level of his injury.  His median and ulnar nerves were regenerating.  Through his intense strength training with Dennis, Z rebuilt 30 pounds of the lean muscle he had lost since his injury.  The transformation was quite remarkable.  
A week after returning to the SEAL compound in Virginia Beach, Z sent me a video with a cryptic note which read, “Good to be back on the gun.”  I was stunned as I watched him firing his rifle during a training session with perfect form.  I could not believe that it had only been 3 months since he had been advised to amputate the left arm that he was now so expertly using in the video.    

I’ve been to Virginia Beach to visit Z since he left Tucson and have remained in close contact with him.  He continues to improve and he has exceeded all of our expectations for recovery.  Other than his index finger, which is still recovering function, he now has about 90% of his previous arm and hand function.  He sent me an e-mail last week and told me that he just deadlifted 320 pounds.  Wish I could do that!

In these times of great pessimism in our country, Z and the Navy SEALs have restored my faith in what is best in humanity.  The response of the Tucson medical community has been equally inspiring to me.  Ann Vonkersburg, Drs. Butler and Siegel, and Dennis Moore provided all of their services free-of-charge.  Radiology Limited, the Northwest Hospital and Lab Corp did the same.  Private members of the Tucson community, Buzz Bruner, Ann Bruner and Don Cheshire provided money for travel and other expenses.  Steven and Midori Snyder coordinated Z’s living arrangements.  Whenever I made a call to a colleague, a patient, or a medical institution for help with Z, the response was always the same; they would interrupt me in midsentence and say, “Whatever he needs, Steve.”  Indeed…whatever he needs…