MEDICUS: The Wounds of War
Military investments spur medical advances to restore some of what modern-day warfare has stolen from soldiers.
It was March 2003, and Staff Sgt. Joseph Gross had just 10 days left in the Army. Then his division received combat orders for Iraq. For Gross, there was no question—he was in. "I'd trained so long—it's kind of like training for the Super Bowl and then not going," says Gross. "That's what I was in there for—to do those missions. Ten days or a year left, it didn't really matter, I wanted to go." So he reenlisted for another three years.
Gross completed his first tour in Iraq and came home unharmed. Then, in September 2005, on his second deployment, Gross's squad was doing routine security formations looking for suicide car bombs on the streets of Baghdad. In an instant, two bombs exploded around him. One hit the Humvee that Gross was driving, slicing the truck in half. He remembers flying through the air, then hitting the ground. Instinctively, he began patting himself down, just the way he'd been trained to do. All was well until he reached his legs and looked down. His right leg, from a few inches below the knee, was virtually gone, hanging on only by the inseam of his pants.
Thirty days later, Gross stepped into his new prosthetic leg. A year and a half later, he backpacked the Grand Canyon. Gross, 34, now sports a running leg, a cycling leg, a golfing leg and even a rock-climbing leg, all engineered at the new prosthetics lab at the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center. "You go in and you have no idea what kind of foot you're going to put on," says Gross. "They have shelves of different feet to try out. Some bend this way, some that way, some have shock absorbers." Soon, he hopes to be the proud owner of an iWalk, a bionic leg and foot that mimics a real limb.
A decade ago, choices like these wouldn't have been available to Gross and other veterans. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have spurred ambitious advances in the rehabilitation and quality of life for soldiers and veterans injured in combat, particularly in the areas of amputations, spinal cord injuries and traumatic brain injuries (TBI). And researchers at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, the biomedical engineering department and the Cleveland VA are spearheading many of these advances.