EL PASO, Texas — The Army is using a unique military-civilian partnership to train orthopedic surgeons at William Beaumont Army Medical Center.
The Orthopaedic Surgery Residency Program at the Central El Paso military hospital teams up with the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center to provide top training to future Army orthopedic surgeons.
This is the only combined military-civilian program of its kind in the country, said Lt. Col. Philip Belmont, an orthopedic surgeon and director of the Orthopaedic Surgery Residency Program at Beaumont/Texas Tech.
Because about 75 percent of all combat injuries affect the extremities or are spinal injuries, it's important for the Army to have well-trained orthopedic surgeons, Belmont said.
"Number 1, these doctors will be taking care of military service members at the post (they are assigned to) as well as military family members," Belmont said. "In addition, graduating orthopedic surgeons will at some point deploy to support soldiers in theater with musculoskeletal care."
Four Army doctors will graduate from the program on June 15. A total of 22 are in the five-year program, and usually four or five graduate each year to become orthopedic surgeons, Belmont said.
All of the graduates have committed to at least four years of service in the Army, he said.
In summer 2014, the program will add its first civilian, and one civilian doctor will be allowed to join each year, Belmont said.
The program works closely with Dr. Miguel Pirela-Cruz, chairman of the Orthopaedic Surgery and Rehabilitation Department at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center in El Paso.
"It's a great relationship," said Texas Tech Health Sciences Center spokeswoman Lisa Ruley. "It's sponsored by Beaumont. They do see patients at the orthopedic clinic at Texas Tech and participate in surgical cases at University Medical Center of El Paso."
Maj. Justin D. Orr, an orthopedic surgeon and associate director of the residency program, said resident doctors get a combination of classroom instruction and mentoring, and get to see real-life patients and perform surgeries.
The average resident doctor in the program will perform 2,200 surgeries by the time he or she graduates, Orr said.
He compared the five-year program to an apprenticeship with close supervision.
They do training at Beaumont where they care for soldiers, military family members and Veterans Affairs patients. They also work at University Medical Center and with the El Paso Orthopedic Group, Orr said.
Their workweek can be up to 80 hours over six days.
The lessons that have been learned during the past 10 years of war in Iraq and Afghan istan are also being applied to the training of these resident doctors, Orr added.
They also take part in a comprehensive research program during their five years here. During the past four years, the program has published 94 peer-reviewed research articles; about 85 percent of those had residents participating in the research.
Capt. Aaron See of Houston is a chief resident in his last year of the program. He will graduate in June and will then be assigned to Fort Polk, La.
This class of graduating residents came into the Army after 9/11, knowing full well that they will probably deploy at some point, See said.
He particularly likes the wide combination of training that's available by being able to work at both Beaumont and UMC.
As a medical student at Midwestern University in Glendale, Ariz., he got to assist on a joint replacement surgery. The woman patient couldn't walk before the surgery, See said. Within three weeks, she was able to walk with a cane.
"I thought, 'This is beautiful medicine,' " he said. "This is what I want to do."
Capt. Paul Carey of Goshen, N.Y., is also in the program's graduating class. He will be assigned to Fort Drum, N.Y.
He visited Beaumont as a medical student while at State University of New York in Brooklyn and decided this was the top place he wanted to do his residency.
Army orthopedic surgeons can expect to do important work, he said. Explosions tend to injure extremities, he explained.
"That's our area of expertise," he said.
Carey, a 2004 graduate of West Point who then went directly to medical school, said one of the program's top features is having Belmont as its director, calling him "outstanding." Belmont has been the program's director since June 2007. The combined program has been in existence since the 1980s.
Resident doctors also get the opportunity to work in a Level 1 trauma center at UMC, Carey said.
"All that experience is unique in the Army," he said.
Capt. Dimitri Thomas called the education he received at Beaumont and Texas Tech "second to none."
"We have the best of both worlds," he said.
After leaving Beaumont, Thomas will be assigned to Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
Thomas was born in Sri Lanka but considers The Woodlands, Texas, to be home. He is a naturalized citizen.
"I want to do my part for my country," Thomas said. "It's my way of saying 'thank you.' "
Capt. Kevin Martin of Martin, Mich., is the fourth and final resident doctor who will graduate. He's going on to the University of Iowa to do a foot and ankle fellowship.
"For me, Army education has opened opportunities for me to go to one of the best foot and ankle fellowships in the country, and we can do some cool research, too," Martin said.
Doing his residency in this joint program also gave him the opportunity to serve the El Paso community through the work he did at University Medical Center, Martin said.
About the program
William Beaumont Army Medical Center has four residency programs.
This year's graduate medical education ceremony will be at 9 a.m. June 15 at the Fort Bliss and Old Ironsides museums complex, 1735 Marshall Road.
Residency programs are in orthopedic surgery (a five-year program); general surgery (five years); oral maxillofacial surgery (four years); and internal medicine (three years).
The orthopedic surgery program will have four graduates, all from the Army. The general surgery program will have three graduates, all Army. Oral maxillofacial surgery will have one graduate from the Army, and internal medicine will have seven Army graduates and three civilian Veterans Affairs graduates.
In addition, 14 soldiers will graduate from a transitional intern program.