Paul Roach studied as a surgeon at the prestigious R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center, known as the “father of trauma care,” at the University of Maryland, yet he still said nothing could prepare him for the battle wounds he mended as a doctor in Afghanistan.
At times he helped patients — soldiers and civilians — who suffered through bomb explosions and lost limbs, while others sustained gunshot injuries that left significant wounds in their bodies.
“Civilian trauma isn’t quite like war trauma,” said Roach, 43. “War trauma is on a whole other level. …It’s really horrific.”
But the U.S. Navy doctor said the job was exactly the reason he wanted to be a surgeon in the first place.
“It was by far the most rewarding and best work of my life,” he said. “People are going to get injured, so I was grateful that I could be the one to take care of them.”
Roach, a Forest Park resident, recently returned home from a seven month tour in the Helmand province of Afghanistan and just last week was honored at an Oak Park Arms Veterans Day tribute in his hometown of Oak Park.
He first landed in the southern part of Afghanistan on Nov. 1 last year, arriving with other troops in what was similar to a surge. “With the Marines, we were going to take over that dessert,” he said.
He split his time there between two different types of hospitals, a level two and level three, which were the busiest hospitals in Afghanistan and Iraq combined during the time he was there. The level two location, called Camp Dwyer, was a series of eight interconnected tents that functioned as a hospital, and aimed to treat the more immediate needs of patients.
People who were injured in battle were flown by helicopter to the level two hospital and carried to the tent designated as the emergency room. They would be transported on a stretcher, which was then placed on a metal frame in the tent to make an operating table.
“There, the patient would arrive very fresh,” Roach said. “Maybe 20 minutes from the injury.”
Roach, along with the medical staff, would then perform what is known as “damage control surgery.” Their goal was to stop the bleeding and stabilize the patient. Oftentimes, they didn’t even close wounds.
“We weren’t trying to fix everything,” he said. “We were just trying to stabilize them so they couldn’t get any worse.”
From there the patient would be flown to the level three hospital, called Camp Bastion, which was a larger, solid structure that offered more services.
For the most part, they would get patients dropped off in spurts. “It was wait, wait, wait, and then, hurry!” Roach said. But overall he said the system was organized well and ran smoothly. He never felt too overwhelmed.
Roach finally returned to Forest Park in August after a year of being away from his wife and three daughters, ages 14, 12 and 7.
“To reunite with the family was – words fail me,” he said. “My wife and kids were really tough. To be with them now is the greatest thing in the world.”
Roach, who joined the Navy in 1990 when he first got accepted into medical school, has been both studying and serving as a surgeon all over the country and overseas, including two years as a general surgeon in Sicily and a three year fellowship working with cancer in surgical oncology at the University of Chicago.
He also learned about flight medicine and aviation as he became a U.S. Naval Flight Surgeon in Florida and did a stint with the Marine Expeditionary Unit, which is the group that is called on for immediate response to any crisis. During this time he was based in Japan, and while on the ship one night in the Coral Sea, he was caught in a typhoon.
“We were way out in the middle of nowhere and then, boom, you get hit by this typhoon,” he said. “In the middle of the night, the ship just started rocking incredibly.”
When he was younger, Roach attended Oak Park and River Forest High School and did his undergrad at Loyola University Chicago, where he earned a degree in English.
During college, he wanted to be a novelist. “Then junior year, I read what I wrote,” he said. “And then I moved into medicine.”
While in Afghanistan, however, Roach wrote his first novel. There, he had the time, energy and, most importantly, the inspiration.
“I’d sit in the corner of my little tent and crack away,” he said. His book is about a pilot who was gunned down in Afghanistan and eventually ends up as a double agent in hell.
“I tried to take something serious and make it light-hearted,” he said.
Along with trying to land a book deal, Roach is also currently working as general surgeon at the new James A. Lovell VA-DoD Federal Health Care Facility in North Chicago near the Wisconsin border. It’s a unique facility that combines the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense to care for veterans, sailors, retirees and family members.