Dr. Hammaker: Surgical survival in Iraq
Vail, CO Colorado
VAIL ” Lucky for Dr. Barry Hammaker, the patient that stands out the most from his tours in Iraq and Afghanistan lived to tell the story. An explosion short-circuited the soldier’s brain, causing a seizure.
“He wasn’t breathing and we actually had to do a surgical airway and cut a hole in his neck so we could put a tube in and breathe for him.”
Another of the men Hammaker was serving with in Iraq went home to Washington D.C. for a two-week leave and ended up running into the soldier.
“We were thinking he must’ve gone to Walter Reed, the army hospital in D.C.” Hammaker said. “He said no, this guy was walking around the mall, totally fine. His only question was ‘Why do I have this big scar on my neck?’
That was a real success story ” if no one had been there to take care of him, he would’ve died, Hammaker said. Instead the soldier made a complete recovery and returned home to be with his family.
The 43-year-old doctor has been working as a general surgeon at Vail Valley Medical Center since last July, when he and his wife of 16 years, Maria, and their five Husky dogs ” “their children,” Maria said ” moved from Colorado Springs to Gypsum.
Before that, from 2001 until the end 2005, Hammaker served seven tours of duty as a doctor in the Army ” four tours in Afghanistan and three in Iraq. Hammaker served 16 years before he retired, as an officer, in 2005.
Besides taking care of the troops’ common colds and allergies, Hammaker got a chance to perform many surgeries that general surgeons often don’t get the chance to do ” including neurosurgery and orthopedic surgery.
A skier and hiker himself, the job in Vail was attractive because it’s a smaller hospital and because it gives him the chance to work with unusual situations, whether that be in his capacity as an advisor to Vail Mountain Rescue, or when he’s trying to coordinate sending a critical patient to Denver.
Hammaker has brought many skills and ideas he acquired being a war time doc with him to Vail ” including experience with the blood-clotting agent Factor 7 and special wound dressings made from shrimp shells that he used to always carry in his pocket while in Iraq, he said
During the ’90s Hammaker was involved with researching how close the operating room can be to the battlefield. Because of that research he got a lot of training that most doctors in the Army don’t get ” like survival training, including how to read a map and use a compass, “because if you’re going to be where the regular soldiers are, you have to have the same training so you’re not a liability,” he said.
The research he did had more relevance in 2001 than it did in ’96 with the start of the war in Iraq, Hammaker said.
“It was called the forward surgical team. In Iraq, when we first went in, the guys with the guns would be in the front driving through the desert and (doctors) would be driving right behind them. If something would happen, they’d stop and set up right behind them, close enough to bring the injured soldier back within a number of minutes.
“You’re close, but you’re not right there.”
There were a few times where Hammaker worried he might be the next person on the operating table, he said.
“We were out and there would be a rocket attack,” he said. “It landed close, but not close enough to injure us. With mortars though, basically they fire one, see where it lands and then adjust. Had they decided to shoot it a little closer, it would have been landing on us. That was really the only time I thought Jesus, the next one might land on top of us.”
At one point, Hammaker and the other doctors he worked with set up their operating room in a bombed out building filled with debris from a recent strike. The doctors carried out the rubble and then pooled their random carpentry skills to build makeshift windows and doors to make the place dust and wind-free.
“We didn’t have a construction crew to come in,” Hammaker said. “We did it all ourselves.”
Like Hammaker and the other doctors in Iraq had to improvise when it came to the operating room, there were times they were forced to improvise when it came to medical supplies.
A soldier that had been shot came in missing his lower jaw, Hammaker remembered.
“Normally you would wire that back together,” he said. “We didn’t have wire or the time to wire it. So we took some very heavy suture and basically sort of looped some pieces of suture between this guy’s teeth and tied a big knot to keep his jaw together.”
The makeshift solution helped the soldier to breath better, which allowed him to be left alone so the doctors could attend to the other injured people, he said.
Being scared is part of being in a war zone ” and most of the time he was scared, he said.
He had two choices ” either let the fear overtake him or recognize it and then set it aside to get the job done, he said.
And Hammaker’s job ” to take care of the troops, and any other injured person that walked through the door ” was something he took very seriously and was glad to do, he said.
“Most of the people I worked with could have been doing anything they wanted to, but they chose to be in the military and keep everyone else safe. I think if we didn’t have people like that, we wouldn’t have a place like Vail,” he said. “Army guys started Vail and if we hadn’t had a very significant response to being attacked, who knows what would have happened to the country.”
Hammaker returned from Iraq for the last time just over a year ago, he said.
Maria, his wife, was diagnosed with a rare liver disease called acute intermittent porphyria after he came back and he made the decision to retire so that he could make sure she got the care she needed.
“The last trip he went on, I got really stressed out and when he came back I was really sick and had to have a pretty big surgery,” Maria said.
Excruciatingly painful attacks are brought on by stress, she said.
“When he was gone, I’d never watch the news, never read the newspaper,” she said. “I didn’t want to know. It was very limited contact ” sometimes it’d be four months with no contact and I wouldn’t know.”
When the phone would ring, her heart would catch for a second, especially if the caller ID read U.S. government.
To no surprise, Hammaker’s decision to retire was a relief, Maria said. Though adjusting to “normal” life took him a little time.
“He’d always be very wooly, his hair would be really long and he’d have a full beard, Instead of the normal clean-cut the Army required ” hair above the collar, regulation mustache,” Maria said. “Sometimes he’d be really skinny and he’d have trouble sleeping for awhile.”
She’d have to remind him that he could do more than just “air shower,” the term soldiers coined meaning if you air out long enough, it counts as a shower.
“He’d come home with a few bad habits,” she said. “I’d have to acclimate him ” ‘You don’t have to air out a pair of socks, honey, and rotate pairs. We can put them in the laundry.'”
Driving in the states always took some adjusting to as well, Hammaker said. “I drove way out of control for United States driving, but normal for war-zone driving.”
He was used to driving as fast as possible in Iraq “because if there’s a roadside bomb, it’s good to be moving fast so you can get past it fast, before the terrorist can hit the button and blow up the bomb.”
Life is a lot different in the Rocky Mountains, which Maria said they’re both thankful for.
“Every morning when we get up, we have coffee together and look out the window we just say how lucky we are to live here,” Maria said.
Hammaker said when he retires 20 years from now it will be in this valley. “I’ve moved enough,” he said.
When the couple moved to town last summer, people warned them that ski season would be very busy at the hospital.
“We would laugh,” Maria said. “As long as no one is shooting at my husband, we’ll be fine. This is a much mellower lifestyle than what we’re used to.”
Staff writer Caramie Schnell can be reached at 748-2984 or email@example.com.