By Ms. Erin Bolling (Army Medicine)December 14, 2018
On January 7, 2018, the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs' peer review contractor hosted a Military Burn Research Program peer review meeting in Reston, Virginia. The purpose of the meeting was to bring together experts in military burn -- combining scientists, physicians, clinicians, consumers, veterans and Service Members -- to equally review the scientific merit and potential impact of research applications submitted to the program. However, this particular peer review meeting was different.
This meeting brought together two individuals from different walks of life that might not have met otherwise, but had already shared a part of their past together.
Traditionally, all CDMRP review meetings begin with a moment of silence, which is led by one of the meeting participants. The moment of silence provides reflection on the mission at hand and offers respect to those individuals (past and present) that the research could have and/or will truly affect.
For this meeting, Mr. Jason Savell attended as a consumer advocate, after being nominated by the Waco, Texas Center of Excellence for Research on Returning War Veterans. For the CDMRP, consumers are made up of patients, survivors, family members and advocates.
Savell is a Wounded Warrior who participates in the review process alongside the scientists and physicians to bring a perspective provided only by someone living with the firsthand experience of military burn.
Savell shared his story in preparation for the moment of silence, accompanied with photographs of himself and comrades. Some stories are best left to the voice of the storyteller; Savell's story is certainly one of those stories:
"On March 23, 1994, I was proudly serving this country as an Army paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division [in Fort Bragg, North Carolina]. We were preparing for what should have been a routine parachute jump. I was sitting on my rucksack behind one of the C-141 planes that we would be jumping from. I decided to run to the restroom before putting on my chute. I stood up and took a few steps before Soldiers around me started yelling and running. I turned to see what was happening. An F-16 and C-130 had collided in the air above us. I couldn't see the C-130, but I did see the F-16 coming right at us at 450 mph. The plane hit the ground about 300 yards from us and slid across the tarmac, slamming into the C-141 [that] we were preparing to board. I turned to run, just as I felt the explosion.
The force of the blast threw me about 50 feet, while shrapnel from the plane simultaneously took off my left leg. I hit the ground and rolled over a few times before coming to rest on my stomach. I just remember the intense heat. I pulled my head up from the ground and looked around to see other Soldiers running around on fire, as other Soldiers tackled them and tried to beat the flames out. I tried to get up to help but my body wouldn't respond. I turned to see what the problem was and I could see that my legs were badly mangled. Another Soldier was lying motionless beside me and his back was on fire. I pulled myself over to him and started beating on his back. My hands caught fire as the burning jet fuel covered them. At that same time, our chaplain came running up to me and started beating on my back and hands. I had been unaware that I was also on fire. Two Soldiers placed me on a makeshift stretcher and carried me over to a two and a half-ton truck. I was awake well after they got me to the hospital. While on the truck, Staff Sgt. Jenny Earnst saved my life by applying the tourniquet.
I was placed in an induced coma and sent on a medical flight to Brooke Army Medical Center that night. Three weeks later, I was brought out of my coma as my doctor, mother and chaplain stood by my bed. They asked me what all I remembered, and I told them everything. I asked about the guys in my unit and they wouldn't tell me anything. The chaplain brought in a TV and VCR and sat with me as we watched the memorial service for the men who died. I cried as the names were read, and I think I must have cried for three days straight.
My good friend, Martin Lumbert, was in the room next to me. He was burned over 88 percent of his body and had [a] serious infection that would lead to [the] amputation of both of his legs, above the knees, and the fingers on both of his hands. We communicated through our liaisons, and I tried to encourage him. I only saw him one time after the crash. Several months later I was discharged from the burn unit and sent to an orthopedic ward. As I was leaving the burn ward, I was allowed to go see him. I put on the special protective gear required and entered his room. I took one look at him, and my heart sank. He couldn't have weighed more than 65 pounds. He had no ears, no nose, and I could see his rib cage. He had a trachea tube, so it made it difficult for him to talk. I had a mask on, so I am not sure if he could see me crying. I just leaned over my crutches and sobbed. I promised him I would return to see him. I never got the chance. After ten months in the hospital and all of that suffering, Marty died from pneumonia."
Dr. David Harrington, professor of surgery at Brown University, was attending the same MBRP peer review meeting to provide a scientific review. Harrington was travelling from Rhode Island to the meeting in Virginia, and, after making it through a lengthy Transportation Security Administration pre-check, he was turned away from boarding his plane at his gate with only 15 minutes left until takeoff. He ran down the terminal to find an alternate flight so he could to get to the meeting just in time for the opening remarks.
While in the meeting room, Harrington sat and listened to Savell's story. He saw the photos, and the hairs on the back of his neck stood straight up.
"I recognized the photos because you just don't ever forget something like that," said Harrington. "Not only was I there, but his friend Marty, was my patient."
As you can imagine, Harrington had difficulty containing himself; however, the meeting continued into the next session. He took out a piece of paper, wrote a note, and passed it down four chairs to Savell. On the paper was simply written, "He was my patient."
During this accident in 1994, Harrington was a captain in the Army and a junior staff surgeon with the burns and critical care unit at the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. He was a part of the medical flight crew that reported to Fort Bragg just 24 hours after the event and brought 22 patients back to the Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.
Stunned by this unexpected turn of events, Savell called his late friend's fiancé, whom he'd kept in contact with all these years. He asked her if she remembered the attending physician that treated his friend. Without hesitation she replied, "Dr. Harrington."
During the next break, the two were able to sit down together and talk.
Dr. Akua Roach, MBRP program manager, was in attendance at the meeting. She explained how Savell, (having worked with him on other peer review panels), always seemed quiet and reserved but had a clear passion for the CDMRP mission. Harrington was invited to join the review panel, after becoming a prominent figure in the burn care community due to his work with burn patients.
Roach quickly realized the power of this fateful reunion.
"[Savell's] story was gripping and real," said Roach. "He ended by saying that he believes that his friend would be alive today had he received the care that is now standard practice in today's military treatment facilities--care that has been developed and validated by research funded by programs such as the MBRP.
"For some researchers in the audience who may never have met a burn-injured veteran," she continued, "Mr. Savell's account reiterated the 'why' for the MBRP's existence."
Everything had to fall in place and click, like a well-crafted watch: Savell finding the courage to get up and share his story in a room full of people he didn't know. Harrington's quick decision at the airport, allowing him to make the meeting just in time for the opening remarks. The effective management of peer review, bringing together dedicated and experienced individuals committed to the advancement of research that develops better treatments for military burn injuries.
For those suffering from military burn or other types of conditions, disease, or illness, the CDMRP works to ensure these types of improbable scenarios may result in effective collaborations towards transforming healthcare. By bringing together various experts and consumers at all levels of the review process, the human element provides perspective and is a central component in identifying the most innovative and impactful research.
"This 'chance encounter,' 24 years in the making, which reunited a clinician and veteran who once shared a traumatic experience, provides a perfect example of why the CDMRP continues to charge forward towards its mission," said Roach. "Individuals like Mr. Savell and Dr. Harrington -- who are passionate about improving the treatment, care and survival rates of those affected by a condition, disease or injury -- make it all possible."