Modern warfare's lifesaving techniques give Ronan's Tomy Parker a fighting chance

2011-01-15T22:49:00Z 2014-10-19T08:08:04Z Modern warfare's lifesaving techniques give Ronan's Tomy Parker a fighting chanceBy VINCE DEVLIN of the Missoulian missoulian.com
January 15, 2011 10:49 pm  • 

BETHESDA, Md. - Both of his legs are gone. The flesh was torn to shreds half a planet from here, and what little remained - mostly bone - was amputated in a field hospital in Afghanistan last month.

But on a Wednesday morning three weeks later, it is his left hand - what's left of it - that most bothers the Marine. That's the hand that was wrapped around the pistol grip of his rifle when he stepped on the improvised explosive device.

All the fingers on the southpaw's hand had to be amputated as well. The wound is still open at this point, and it can still throb.

The fateful December day when Lance Cpl. Thomas Parker of Ronan lost two legs and four fingers had begun with a local Mullah - a "power player" in Helmand Province, where they were deployed - telling Parker's unit the location of three other IEDs in the area.

"It didn't feel good," says Parker. "He could have been leading us into an ambush, or to a suicide bomber."

But it turned out to be good intelligence, Parker says. His unit hiked to the area, and successfully detonated the three bombs. Parker estimates his platoon had detonated at least 50 IEDs since arriving in Afghanistan on Oct. 1, where they began operations after about a week of further training.

It was on the trip back from this latest mission that the Marines came under fire.

"Just a couple of shots," Parker says. "It was getting late, about 4:30 in the afternoon, and our squad leader made the decision to keep pushing. It's hard having to look for IEDs in the dark."

So they turned. It was an area they had traveled through on foot many times, Parker says. He took four steps just fine.

"On the fifth step, I felt funny," he says. "I looked down, and realized I wasn't on the ground anymore. Then I realized it was because I didn't have legs anymore.

"I said a couple of colorful words, thought, ‘This is going to hurt,' and smashed into the ground."

*****

When an IED's primary charge detonates, gases heat up and expand rapidly, sending shock waves for hundreds of yards or more.

"He showed me a video one of his buddies had posted of them blowing up an IED," Parker's mother, Lisa Jennison of Ronan, says, "and it took my breath away. You can see Tomy in the video, hear them counting it down, and then you see the biggest explosion - it's just huge. I watched that, and I honestly don't know how he survived."

The explosion fragments the bomb's container, which may also contain nails, screws, bolts and ball bearings, turning it all into shrapnel. Additionally, the makers of the homemade bombs may add toxic chemicals, or even defecate or urinate into them, in an attempt to cause problems beyond the unimaginable initial damage they inflict.

The heat from the explosion causes fire, and the blast wave leaves a partial vacuum that causes air to rush back in under high pressure, pulling debris and shrapnel back in with it.

The pressure in a blast wave can be 1,000 times that of atmospheric pressure, which can cause the brain to slam against the inside of the skull, causing concussions or blindness, and rupture eardrums, causing deafness.

Tomy Parker's left eardrum ruptured, although that's about the last thing he noticed as he lay in the swirling dust and called out to the other members of his unit.

What did he yell?

"I said I was a double amputee," Parker says.

Just like that, his life was changed forever.

*****

Parker was the fifth Marine in his platoon to be "blowed up" - their words - that week alone.

Just four days earlier it was Parker - knocked into the dirt himself by the shock waves that travel from a detonated IED at a rate of 1,600 feet per second - picking himself off the ground and running to the rescue of two fellow Marines who both lost their legs in a similar explosion.

Parker had tied the tourniquets to their stumps; now he looked for someone to do the same for him.

"They yelled back that they couldn't see me through the dust," Parker says, "but when the dust cleared they got tourniquets on both my legs, and got gauze and a pressure dressing on my hand."

There was no place for a helicopter to land there, Parker says, so he was loaded in a truck and hauled down the road.

A helicopter - "A British military bird," Parker says - transported him to a forward operating base.

Parker, who remained conscious to that point, was given drugs that knocked him out on the Medevac helicopter.

By the time he regained consciousness he would be on U.S. soil, here at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, just outside Washington, D.C.

Lisa, his mother, and uncle, Rick Jennison of Ronan, had arrived a half-hour before he did and were waiting for him.

*****

In previous wars, Tomy Parker most likely would never have opened his eyes again. We'd be writing about his funeral instead of his recovery.

Advances in both medicine and body armor are saving lives in Afghanistan and Iraq, and also delivering home a wave of young military people with missing limbs.

According to the Congressional Research Service, the number of military personnel who had all or parts of limbs amputated since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan started had topped 1,600 by September - 1,621, to be exact - the last time CRS delivered hard numbers.

That report came out on Sept. 28, the same day Tomy Parker was deployed to Afghanistan from Camp Pendleton, Calif.

At the Joint Theater Hospital at Afghanistan's Bagram Air Field, where Parker was taken after the explosion, the hospital commander and surgeons explained the new realities of this war to National Public Radio's Quil Lawrence just two weeks ago.

"I could probably count on one hand how many double amputations I'd had to take care of or do" prior to the war in Afghanistan, Air Force Lt. Col. Rachel Height, Bagram's head surgeon, told Lawrence.

And now?

"I don't even know," she said. "It's a lot."

They arrive almost daily, and sometimes, Lawrence explained, in large clusters when a big bomb has exploded under a foot patrol.

It's getting worse. After several years of war, the number of amputees was at about 900 in late 2009.

A little more than a year later, the number is likely threatening to top 2,000.

"An IED blast is a nasty thing," Parker says. "It takes off limbs, and it's not a clear cut. My legs still had a good chunk of the bones sticking out, with chunks of meat still attached. It was not something pretty at all.

"On my left hand, my pinkie was gone, the lower part of my ring finger was gone, my middle finger was gone and my pointer was hanging by a couple of tendons. The skin was blown off the rest of the hand."

Doctors considered amputating at the wrist before deciding they would try to save the thumb.

*****

Tomy Parker was unconscious when he was rushed into the Bagram emergency room, where the doctors and nurses who cared for him there did so in 100-degree heat.

That's where the ER thermostat is set. Hypothermia is one of the biggest risks to patients who have lost large amounts of blood, and cranking up the ER temperature is one of the changes doctors have made since the war in Afghanistan began nine years ago.

"At the beginning of this conflict," Air Force Col. Chris Benjamin, the hospital commander, told NPR, "we were taking the best trauma medicine from the civilian sector, and we brought it to Iraq and Afghanistan. Here we are seven, eight years later, taking what we've learned in these conflicts" and applying it back home.

One thing different from past wars is the use of a catheter to pinch nerves and numb injured limbs - Parker has one in his left shoulder to deaden the feeling in his left arm, home to the hand where he lost the four fingers.

"You had so many injured veterans from Vietnam wind up addicted to painkillers," says Parker's Uncle Rick, "but now they pinch a nerve and you don't need near the narcotics."

And just a decade ago, tourniquets were thought to do more harm than good, cutting off the blood supply to injured limbs, but now they are considered a key first step to saving a life, not a last resort.

"The soldier out in the field that encounters an explosion or a gunshot wound, the most important part in his chain of survival from the explosion ... probably is what his battle buddy does," Benjamin told Lawrence.

With so many injuries now involving lost limbs, all U.S. troops carry special tourniquets that are designed so that they can be applied with one hand.

Tomy Parker says Marines are required to have three tourniquets on them.

He had five when he was blowed up.

As the 21-year-old Parker tells the story of the day he lost four fingers and two legs in Afghanistan, his mother and uncle change the bandages on his left hand in his hospital room at the National Naval Medical Center while nurses look on.

Parker shares the small room with Cpl. Chris Montgomery of Alabama, who lost his legs in Afghanistan four days before Tomy did. Montgomery is one of the Marines Tomy helped save just days before other Marines helped save Tomy.

Lisa and Rick carefully pull the bandages back, revealing a thumb attached to a bloody stump. They've been doing this twice a day for most of the three weeks.

"A wet-to-dry dressing isn't that common, and different nurses on different shifts were doing it different ways," Lisa explains. "We're here every time, and Rick knows what Tomy wants, so we just do it."

It's hopefully the second-to-last time they will. Tomy is scheduled for surgery the next day, when a chunk of skin from his back will be removed and grafted over the open wound on his left hand.

He will be in the operating room for 12 hours. Every blood vessel in the hand must be attached to the new skin to ensure optimal blood flow and give Parker the best chance at the graft taking.

"You don't want to have to do this twice," his surgeon told him.

It is Lance Cpl. Thomas Parker's 12th surgery in the three weeks since the IED exploded underneath the young man from Ronan.

The 20-pound bomb took his feet. It took his legs. It took fingers.

But it did not take his life.

As you'll learn as the Missoulian tracks his recovery over the coming months, the insurgents evidently failed to take Tomy Parker's spirit, too.

 

Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or at vdevlin@missoulian.com. Photography editor Kurt Wilson can be reached at 523-5270 or at kwilson@missoulian.com.

 

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