(Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series on Eric Nelson. The initial story ran in Wednesday's Echo Press.)
Eric Nelson's first time as the man of the operating table was different than most orthopedic surgeons. After nine years of schooling and a stint in basic training, he owed the Air Force nine years of service. Little did he know what his deployments would entail.
Nelson, who is now an Alexandria resident and surgeon at Heartland Orthopedic Specialists, attended the Air Force Academy to play Division I hockey and find his career through the armed forces. He earned a medical degree at the University of Minnesota and then served in England at the Royal Air Force Lakenheath base from 2000-04.
"I was stationed in a small community hospital with a couple of operating rooms during my deployments to England," Nelson said. "There's nothing that can prepare you for seeing a war casualty for the first time. There are overlaps with the other surgeons, and you go to school to get as ready for it as you can be, but I just had to jump right in."
Nelson is one of hundreds of orthopedic surgeons in the United State. However, his history behind the surgical mask is much different than most.
The impact of 9/11
In 2001, Nelson went on a humanitarian mission to Mozambique, Africa. He was part of a team that conducted trauma life support training after tragic flooding in the late 1990s.
"When I was sent to Africa, that was pre-9/11," Nelson said. "The world was in a different place than it was a year later."
In his next deployment, Nelson went to Kazakhstan. The Russian Soyuz program had a partnership with NASA to get astronauts to and from the international space station.
"We were there in case something bad happened to the astronaut that comes back," Nelson said. "If a space capsule augers into the ground, I'm not sure what I could've done. But somebody wanted a team there, so we went."
He also deployed to Pakistan, and in 2003 to Nigeria, one of the destinations of former president George W. Bush's Africa tour. While the president was in the country for 24 hours, Nelson spent 10 days in a makeshift medical station inside a Hilton hotel.
"Depending on the infrastructure, the U.S will send its own medical personnel on these kinds of trips," Nelson said. "Other people were there longer than us. They were rewiring the hotel, and did an amazing amount of stuff that goes into an operation like that when the president has to hop around the world."
From 2004-09, Nelson's deployments were out of the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado. His longest deployment was over five months when he and other military surgeons performed 472 procedures on service members, locals and enemies at Balad Air Base in Iraq, about 70 miles north of Baghdad. Of those operations, all but five were caused by IEDs, roadside bombs, gunshot wounds or missile attacks.
"We were the air medical evacuation hub," Nelson said. "There were a lot of stories in the news about how wounded soldiers get back from Iraq."
Nelson was a staff surgeon who had the job of getting patients in and out as efficiently as possible. Once a patient was stable, they boarded a flight to Germany, where they would continue the recovery process at another hospital.
War victims would arrive on a Black Hawk helicopter and get escorted down a walkway with a large overhang above them.
"I'm not sure who decided to call it Heroes Highway, but the name stuck," Nelson said. "It was cool because there was a giant American flag underneath the tent where soldiers could see it as they were being escorted into our base. If you made it to that hospital alive, there was a 98% chance you would leave that hospital alive."
The staff surgeons selected to serve at Balad took pride in giving people a great chance to make it back home.
"In the world of deployed medicine and horribly blown-up stuff, the survival rate we had was pretty remarkable," Nelson said. "It was an honor to be a part of that."
Saving a terrorist’s life
American soldiers were just some of the people on the operating tables at Balad Air Base. Civilians and enemy soldiers often found themselves on the wrong side of a heinous war act.
"When someone comes in with whatever injuries he or she might have, you don't get to choose which life is worth saving over another," Nelson said. "To say that one day you're going to take good care of someone and then the next day you're not is unethical."
Nelson doesn't know the number of patients he worked on that were fighting against the U.S. military. However, he had a good idea of when somebody didn't align with the duty of American soldiers.
"Sometimes we had patients come in handcuffed to the bed, blindfold over their face and bar bearings stuck in their skin," he said. "In those cases, it's pretty easy to tell who's a good guy and a bad guy. It didn't matter. When you look at somebody on an operating table, you have to look at them as a life that's worth saving before anything else."
A concern for soldiers returning from deployment is post-traumatic stress disorder. Luckily, Nelson doesn't suffer from it, but he will never forget the scary images of war.
"I feel very fortunate not to be one of the people waking up in the middle of the night with PTSD," Nelson said. "You don't forget the stuff you saw, and I saw some pretty horrible things. The last kid I treated was about 10 years old and he was riddled with ball bearings. As medics, you see some of it, but you're not seeing what the people on the front lines are seeing, and I have great compassion for those who went through that."
Because Nelson decided to go to a civilian medical school, he got the choice of leaving the armed forces after he completed his required service. Now, he enjoys the stability of practicing at Heartland Orthopedic Specialists.
"Eric is a fixer. He's always been the kind of guy to make things better for people," said his wife, Kirsten. "He's a thoughtful listener, and I think that makes him a good leader. He's willing to show kindness and listen to the people that he works with every day. He's willing to do whatever it takes to do the right thing."