June 2, 2008
Back from Iraq
U.S. Army Major Jason Huang, an assistant professor of neurosurgery at the Medical Center, recently returned from a three-month deployment in Iraq where he was one of only two neurosurgeons treating U.S. and coalition forces.
Long plane rides over vast oceans leading to life-changing experiences seem to be a repeating theme in Jason Huang’s life. The 37-year-old assistant professor of neurosurgery recently arrived back from a three-month tour of duty in Iraq, where he was stationed at the Balad Medical Center serving as one of only two neurosurgeons in all of Iraq. Located about 60 miles north of Baghdad, Balad is the military’s main treatment center for all U.S. and coalition forces currently fighting in Iraq, as well as for severely wounded Iraqi citizens.
Huang, a U.S. Army Major, says the events of September 11, 2001, were a catalyst for his military service. He joined the Army reserves, as Huang describes, to pay back his debt to the country that has helped him so much. His recent deployment at Balad Medical Center was his first active duty assignment. Before leaving, Huang says he tried to mentally prepare for the traumatic injuries he would need to treat, but the reality was still shocking.
“The extent of the head injuries, indeed all the blast injuries, were far worse than I ever would have imagined,” Huang says.
Throughout his three-month assignment, he and one other neurosurgeon rotated shifts, two days on and two days off. At times, Huang would operate for 24 hours or more, without a break. And even on his days off, he would often visit the hospital to check on surgical patients or to examine other head injuries.
“Our work schedule was driven by bomb blasts and attacks. We would work all day and night if we had patients who needed to be seen.”
Huang says the majority of his surgical care was focused on stabilizing patients so they could be safely moved to the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, the largest military hospital outside of the continental U.S. that cares for critically injured soldiers. While the constant turnover of patients was hard for Huang, who was interested in monitoring his patients’ progress, he was able to focus on the positive aspects of the process.
“I’m especially interested in head trauma, and so it was good for me to be exposed to so many cases, day after day,” Huang says. “I learned a lot, and hopefully, helped many injured soldiers.”
“With Jason’s recent deployment in Iraq, I think we’d be hard pressed to find anyone more qualified to treat traumatic brain injuries,” says Webster Pilcher chair of neurosurgery at the Medical Center. “We are grateful to have Jason back safely, and look forward to working with him to build a truly unique brain injury program here that I believe has the potential to become one of our nation’s finest.”
Huang’s deployment to Iraq is not his only life-altering experience abroad. In 1989, while attending college in his native China, Huang helped organize a group of students to participate in the Tiananmen Square protests. He was there to see the tanks roll into the square on June 4 and 5, and though he escaped unharmed, he was subsequently placed under house arrest.
For three years, he withstood isolation and mental torture, was forced to write confessions for crimes he did not commit, and was not allowed to pursue a career or profession.
Finally, in 1993, with the help of family and friends, Huang was able to obtain a fake passport and secure passage to the United States, where he was declared a political refuge. He would later go on to become a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2000.
Huang stayed with relatives in California, working as a bus boy at restaurants to earn money and taking classes to improve his English. Eventually Huang’s academic studies earned him full scholarships first to Amherst College and then to Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. He completed his residency at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and a fellowship in neurotrauma and critical care, before coming to Rochester in 2006.
Huang put that training to the test in Iraq where in addition to his surgical duties he treated treat soldiers with mild traumatic brain injuries or MTBIs. These injuries are often the result of shock waves from improvised explosive devices. The symptom are similar to those found with brain concussions and include headaches, memory loss, and even depression.
“I believe MTBIs will be the hallmark injury of this Iraq war, as many soldiers are exposed to multiple blasts,” Huang says. “This has implications because it is increasingly difficult to differentiate MTBI symptoms from another common war syndrome: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD, which requires a different treatment approach.”
Huang hopes to conduct research on mild traumatic brain injuries at the Medical Center, teaming up with Department of Emergency Medicine Associate Professor Jeff Bazarian. The two have gained tentative approval to begin collecting and examining blood samples drawn from soldiers who experienced a head trauma while serving in Iraq. Huang and Bazarian hope to find a biomarker that would indicate physical trauma to the brain did occur. The findings could help streamline treatments for veterans suffering from both conditions.
Huang was presented with the Army Commendation Medal for his service and expertise. According to the Army, Huang provided surgical care to a patient population of more than 1,200 with a 98 percent survival rate.
Commendations aside, with two feet firmly planted on U.S. soil, Huang is focused on getting his neurosurgery practice back up and running and is looking forward to treating patients in Rochester.