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KHOST PROVINCE, Afghanistan – It’s probably the last place anyone would want to go - a hospital operating room. And having a trauma surgeon called in to try and save your life is probably the last thing on someone’s “to do” list.
For those who have sustained battle-related, life-threatening injuries and find themselves at the Salerno Hospital, there is good news. They are in some of the best-trained hands in the medical business.
Two of those hands belong to U.S. Army Lt. Col. Paul J. Schenarts, a highly-trained, skilled trauma surgeon, and deputy commander of clinical services, 344th Combat Support Hospital.
An Army reservist who has been at the hospital for just over a month now, Schenarts has already performed nearly 20 trauma surgeries resulting in several lives saved.
The 45-year-old native of Winterville, N.C., answered his nation’s call to deploy, leaving behind his prestigious civilian job as the professor of surgery and critical care medicine at East Carolina University’s School of Medicine. He is also the director of the university’s Surgical Residency Program and the assistant dean for clinical academic affairs.
Schenarts is part of the Army’s Medical Professionals’ Program, which deploys medical personnel to combat theaters for periods of 90-days at a time.
Schenarts joined the Army Reserve in 1994, despite being focused on a medical career.
“I joined the military in the second year of my medical residency,” he said. “The reason was quite simple. I knew the Army had very few trauma surgeons and I wanted to use my skills to help out and to give something back to my country.”
Schenarts has definitely been giving back; this is his sixth deployment. He completed three previous deployments to Afghanistan, with two of those being at the Salerno Hospital. He also served two tours in Iraq working at hospitals in Tikrit, Abu Ghraib and Baghdad.
Although Schenarts seems to enjoy the time he spends as an Army officer, he believes his true calling is trauma surgery.
“I really love being a trauma surgeon,” he said. “There is nothing better than knowing an art, performing it well and teaching others how to do what you do.”
Teaching his skills to others is just one of his goals for this deployment.
“As an educator, I want to increase the staff’s knowledge in working on trauma patients, because that’s predominately what they see here, and that’s my field of expertise,” he said. “I also want to keep a good track of patient outcomes in order to improve our quality of care. Ultimately I want to provide excellent medical care to everyone who comes through those emergency room doors.”
Not only Soldiers and coalition force members come through the emergency room doors, but occasionally local Afghans. One of his recent patients was a local Afghan boy from Paktika Province who was severely injured in a mortar attack.
“He is a very good doctor,” said 17-year-old Noorwali, currently recovering from his wounds at the Salerno Hospital. “I am very happy with the treatment he has given me. He saved my life and I will be forever grateful to him.”
Not only the patients, but the hospital staff also seems to appreciate Schenarts many skills.
“He is a great trauma surgeon, and one of those guys who will step up to do whatever it takes, no matter what is asked of him,” said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Gregory Kolb, commander, 344th Combat Support Hospital. “He is not only a great surgeon, but also a great educator. He is very proactive with training our staff. He is very easy to get along with, very dependable and he brings a lot of experience and knowledge to the table. I wish I could keep him here with our unit all year.”
When he is not saving lives in the operating room or educating the staff on the latest trauma surgery techniques, he enjoys gardening, gourmet cooking, making homemade ice cream and spending time with his wife Kim and their four-year-old son. He also spends a great deal of time writing medical papers on educating physicians and physician leadership.
“It takes a lot of things to be a good surgeon,” he said. “You have to have a good knowledge base and technical abilities, but one of the biggest things you need to have is flexibility. You never know what you are going to see. You have to be able to make life and death decisions frequently and constantly. You have to know all parts of the body and have the confidence to act on incomplete data. Trauma surgeons don’t have the luxury of waiting to make decisions.”
For anyone who comes through the emergency room doors here, they won’t have to worry about waiting for the life-saving treatment they need. Schenarts and the rest of the staff are trained, ready and able to provide the best care possible to them.
“If a Soldier is injured and has to come to the hospital here, they should know that we have a very compassionate team of well-experienced and well-trained staff from the medics to the surgeons,” he said. “The care they will receive here is top-notch by any measure, and the patient outcomes are outstanding.”
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