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Dr. Kyle Swanson performs an orthopedic surgery (left image); Dr. Kyle Swanson treats a patient (right image).

Healing Hands in Far-off Lands

Not many orthopedic surgeons go directly from their residencies to a war zone.

But that was the 2005 journey of Dr. Kyle Swanson, an orthopedic surgeon with Barton Health’s Tahoe Orthopedics and Sports Medicine.

Serving with the U.S. Army Medical Corps and assigned to the 249th Combat Support Hospital, Dr. Swanson completed the San Francisco Orthopedic Residency Program at St. Mary’s Medical Center, then was shipped out for six months of deployment at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, about 30 miles north of Kabul.

“I went right after my residency, and it's something you literally get thrown into,” Dr. Swanson said. “Initially it’s very overwhelming and nothing can prepare you for the injuries you see. You have to rely on your training and apply it.”

Dr. Swanson’s training and ability were needed as he worked on Afghani civilians, soldiers and police offi cers – in addition to U.S. military personnel.

“When it’s an American soldier, the intensity level increases dramatically,” he said. “So our goal is to stabilize them and get them out of there and transfer them out as quickly as possible…Most were transported to Landstulh, Germany, from both the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters.”

Dr. Swanson and the 249th never turned anyone away.

“It didn’t matter who they were,” he said. “It was very gratifying because the local civilians just loved that we were there. They were receiving treatment that was not available to them otherwise. The medical care in their major cities is probably about 100 years behind.”

Besides providing emergency treatment, Dr. Swanson and another surgeon conducted a civilian clinic twice a week, treating orthopedic conditions of all kinds.

“These are people who have never had health care in their whole lives, so you would see things you never saw in the United States for the most part,” he said. “A lot of limb deformities and infections.”

Many of the injuries he saw were from land mines, he said, mostly left behind by the Russian invasion of Afghanistan three decades ago.

The experience Dr. Swanson gained in Afghanistan made him a better surgeon at home, he said.

“Going overseas and treating people in underserved areas reaffirms the reasons one goes into medicine,”

Dr. Swanson said. “I hope to be able to volunteer my services again sometime in the future, since my experience was so rewarding both personally and professionally.”

Dr. Kyle Swanson is an orthopedic physician serving patients in the South Lake Tahoe, CA and Carson City, NV areas.

 

This story was originally published in the Fall 2011 issue of Barton Health's "Health Lines" magazine.