Heartland Orthopedic surgeon Eric Nelson was serving his country at the Air Force Theater Hospital at Balad Air Base in Iraq from 2004-09 when a patient was brought in with several injuries all over his body after planting a roadside bomb.
Nelson was part of a team that worked like a well-oiled machine. The medical professionals operated quickly and efficiently to save the lives of over 400 victims. However, this case was different.
"At times, we had five different teams working on patients at once," he said. "Orthopedics were working on one hand, the (otolaryngologist) team was working on his neck, the general surgeons were working on his belly and the urologist was working on the stuff they do. We try to figure out who goes first because time is the difference between life and death."
The patient was on his way to several successful surgeries. All he needed was O-positive blood for stabilization. When Nelson found out the blood bank was empty, the surgeon stepped into another room to be the donor.
"Our job was to do immediate procedures so they can get sent to a medical base in Germany," Nelson said. "For me to be able to donate a unit of blood, carry it to the anesthesia person and watch them transfuse this soldier was humbling. To be able to see your own blood go into somebody is special."
Hockey is a gateway
Nelson grew up in Plymouth as a typical suburban kid. Both parents were in the Air Force. His dad served in the Reserve Officer's Training Corps and his mom was a flight nurse.
"There's a patriotic thread that runs through my family," Nelson said. "My dad's brothers were all in World War II. One of them was a B-17 tail gunner and was given the Distinguished Flying Cross."
Despite the family lineage in the Air Force Academy, Nelson's path to the military came from a different motive. In high school, he was a good student and a standout hockey player. His success on and off the ice allowed him to play at Air Force from 1988-91.
"Chuck Delich was the coach at Air Force, and he took a chance on me," Nelson said. "He's from Ely, so we had a bit of a Minnesota connection. I'm not sure if I would've gotten into Air Force without hockey. There's a long approval process that you have to go through to get in. But I liked Colorado, and I liked playing hockey, so I went."
Nelson wasn't a top-tier player out of high school. He called himself a lunch-bucket defenseman that parked himself in front of the net. However, he did cross paths with one of the biggest names in hockey history. While playing for the Wayzata Trojans, legendary University of Minnesota and Olympic coach Herb Brooks was set to take over the St. Cloud State University program that was transitioning to Division I.
"I can say I got a letter from him when I was in high school," Nelson said. "I met him once when I went to hockey camp when I was a kid. I took a picture with him while he had his gold medal and everything. I think my mom still has it in a scrapbook somewhere."
The mission in the Air Force at the time was to recruit pilots. In basic training, Nelson found out that his eyesight did not meet the standards of the Air Force to become a pilot, and he was told to choose a different career path.
"I used to send my mom postcards when I was in basic training," Nelson said. One of those stated that 2% of each Air Force graduating class could go to medical school if they met the requirements. That meant only 20 people out of each class.
After being one of the few students selected to pursue medical endeavors, he chose to enroll in medical school at the University of Minnesota. In weighing his options, his decision to come home made the most sense for him.
"My grandparents were here at the time, and I liked being closer to family," he said. "Not to mention, I liked the idea of wearing jeans and a sweatshirt to class every day as opposed to a uniform."
Keeping a home afloat
Nelson attended medical school for four years with an additional five years of residency studying orthopedics. During that time, he met his wife, Kirsten.
"We were both in medical school at the University of Minnesota," Kirsten said. "I guess we just hit it off from there."
Eric and Kirsten got married while they were in college. After they finished medical school, Nelson owed nine years of service to the Air Force. In 2000, he was deployed to England for the first time, leaving his wife and two kids, Zac and Karina, at home.
The life of a military spouse is often difficult. Watching a significant other enter and exit months at a time takes a mental toll that only the strongest can bear
"When I was on deployment, she was the anchor back home taking care of the kids," Nelson said. "She stepped away from practicing medicine for us. When I was off in the desert for five months, she was homeschooling the kids. She's been so awesome for our family, and it's given us some cool opportunities. The people at home don’t get enough credit for being the heroes that they are."
Kirsten didn’t expect to be a military wife, but soon realized she was born to take on the burden after Eric’s first few deployments.
“God equipped me with the ability to be a military spouse,” she said. “It takes independence. It was my job to take care of everything at home to give him peace of mind while he was away. I wanted to do my part to support the Air Force’s mission.”
Because people like Kirsten did their part, Eric and his staff performed hundreds of operations and saved many lives.