ST. LOUIS -- Air Force Maj. Erik Nott, M.D., a SLUCare orthopaedic surgeon at Saint Louis University Hospital, received the Purple Heart on Monday, Nov. 7 after being wounded in Afghanistan last May.
|Air Force Col. James Slife pins the Purple Heart to the lapel of Maj. Erik Nott, M.D., an associate professor of orthopaedic surgery, who was wounded in Afghanistan.|
Nott is a member of an elite, eight-person medical operations unit that provides close support for military troops on special missions. When not deployed, Nott, who is an assistant professor of orthopaedic surgery at SLU, teaches residents and medical school students at SLU and cares for patients at Saint Louis University Hospital. During the past four years, Nott has been on missions in Afghanistan, Haiti, Croatia and Africa.
The home base for the unit -- one of two pilot programs in the nation that could reshape future military medical care -- is Hurlburt Field in Florida.
At a briefing to colleagues from SLU and SLU Hospital that explained the presence on campus of the military medical operations unit, Nott discussed his military decoration.
"I was actually pretty lucky," he said.
Wounded in Afghanistan
Nott was wounded on May 29, 2011 in northwestern Afghanistan, when a joint team of Army and Marine special forces and their supporting medical personnel was attacked by enemy rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine gun fire. Just a few hours earlier, Nott had been part of the medical team that worked to save the life of an 18-month-old girl who had burns over 35 percent of her body.
"Her father, having learned of the special operations surgical team (SOST) and special operations critical care evacuation team (SOCCET) presence in the village, brought her to them in hopes of receiving the urgent medical care only they could provide," Air Force Capt. Olivia Jackson, a critical care nurse with the 1st Special Operations Support Squadron/Operations Special Medical Element, said at the Purple Heart ceremony in Florida.
"After a successful procedure, three team members remained in the treatment room to recover the patient while Maj. Nott and the rest of the team went back out into the compound."
As the military medical personnel walked away from their most recent patient, gunshots rang out. Under enemy attack, Nott recognized the severity of the situation and grabbed two of his teammates, sending them into the nearest structure as the marine special operations team and special forces snipers returned fire.
"Thinking only about his teammates, Maj. Nott then placed himself between them and the direction of fire and as they rapidly crossed an open area, he was hit by a bullet in the lower leg," Jackson said.
"Fortunately Maj. Nott's wound was minor; the bullet having missed his bone by only a millimeter. He was quickly treated by the special operations surgical team's general surgeon and returned to full duty, staying with his team for the remainder of the tour."
Nott acknowledged that not everyone would have opted to remain with his or her unit after being injured.
"I didn't want to leave and disrupt the team," he said. "The doctors numbed it with Lidocaine, stitched it up, covered it and I kept it clean. I just kept doing my thing."
The Purple Heart, which is the oldest U.S. military decoration currently in use, is awarded to those who have been wounded or lost their lives during armed conflict or as a result of terrorist action. Nott deflected the attention brought by the Purple Heart.
"Our battlefield airmen, marines, soldiers and sailors risk their lives on a daily basis and routinely face dangers like direct machine gun fire on buildings and IEDs on patrol and accept it as part of their job. That's real courage," he said.
"We have the privilege of being with the finest trained fighters. If anything bad were to happen, I wouldn't want to be anywhere else."
Presence at SLU
The medical military team spent the spring and summer in Afghanistan, and is on call for deployment at least one time a year, and more if needed. Their goal is to reach wounded service members quickly to stabilize and treat them within an hour of their injuries, then help transport them to a larger medical center for more definitive surgery. Consequently, the medical military team is stationed close to the thick of the action. The medical team also treats civilians.
"We're there to save lives. We're not there to do any fancy fixation. We're the Air Forces' hidden secret when it comes to medicine," Nott said. "We're on active duty and our motto is ‘any time, any place.'"
The unit is trained to serve in any environment and provide trauma and critical care. They mobilize quickly. For instance they arrived in Haiti less than 24 hours after last year's earthquake struck.
"There are a limited number of people who want to go where things are dirty and nasty and practice medicine," Nott acknowledged. "We're not afraid to go places where other people don't want to go."
The Air Force medical team includes an orthopaedic surgeon, general surgeon, anesthetist, critical care nurse, respiratory therapist, surgical technician and two emergency medicine physicians.
On the home front, the medical military personnel operate as a team, keeping their skills sharp at Saint Louis University Hospital, a Level 1 trauma center, which treats the most critical and severely injured emergency patients. All team members have faculty appointments.
Established in 1836, Saint Louis University School of Medicine has the distinction of awarding the first medical degree west of the Mississippi River. The school educates physicians and biomedical scientists, conducts medical research, and provides health care on a local, national and international level. Research at the school seeks new cures and treatments in five key areas: cancer, infectious disease, liver disease, aging and brain disease and heart/lung disease.
Read about C-STARS, another Air Force initiative on campus.
Learn about the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery.