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Surgeon gets Bronze Star for improving care for Afghan women

Officer led all-female medical team

Nov. 11, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Lt. Cmdr. (Dr.) Leah Brown is shown with local Afghans at the Role 2 hospital at Forward Operating Base Tarin Kowt, Afghanistan, where she served for eight months with Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan.
Lt. Cmdr. (Dr.) Leah Brown is shown with local Afghans at the Role 2 hospital at Forward Operating Base Tarin Kowt, Afghanistan, where she served for eight months with Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan. (Courtesy of Lt. Cmdr. (Dr.) Leah Brown)
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A Navy doctor earned a Bronze Star in May for her recent deployment to Afghanistan, where she spent much of her time caring for Afghan civilians — and vastly improving the quality of care available to nearby Afghan women.

Sometimes people ask Lt. Cmdr. Leah Brown how that could have been part of her job as a military orthopedic surgeon supporting a special operations unit. She always has her answer ready.

“I would ask them to define what my job is,” she told Navy Times. “My job is to take care of people, and if we can provide care, we can remind everyone that we’re all human beings and we all deserve care.”

Brown deployed from Naval Hospital Bremerton, Wash., from August 2012 to last May with Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan to Forward Operating Base Tarin Kowt, about 90 miles north of Kandahar.

“I knew that I was going to be with a special ops team,” she said. “I didn’t know who, and I wasn’t sure where, but I knew I would be an orthopedic surgeon for this Role 2 billet — stabilize-and-transfer-type medical care.”

What Brown didn’t know was that the previous Tarin Kowt hospital team had treated local Afghans on a fairly regular basis.

“I don’t know if it was part of the mission of winning hearts and minds,” she said. “There’s a lot of secret stuff that we weren’t more aware of, but they started seeing local-national patients.”

Then, Brown said, the local Afghan orthopedic surgeon left the region just before her team arrived in Tarin Kowt.

“What we were finding is that, a lot of times, medical providers are threatened [by insurgents] and wind up leaving for safety purposes,” she said.

The administrator at the local hospital, who had previously worked with the base, started calling the FOB to ask if they had time to treat some of the broken bones and other injuries coming into his hospital. Thankfully, Brown said, they did.

“And that’s a testament to, at least, where we were in the war at that time,” she said. “We were not seeing a lot of coalition casualties, which was good.”

To get on base, patients arrived at the gate via Afghan vehicle and were submitted to a security search. They would then be transferred to a military vehicle and taken to the hospital.

“This was difficult, in that if the patient was critical, this all had to be done very quickly,” Brown said. “We got critical patients frequently.”

Move toward gender equity

Brown’s team started seeing boys and men pretty regularly, but the real breakthrough came when young and elderly women came to see the all-female team they put together.

Traditional Afghan culture dictates that women be treated only by female medical personnel. In the Tarin Kowt district, Brown said, the care available to women was less than ideal.

“When we got [to the hospital], we were just flabbergasted at the difference in the care provided,” she said. “There was definitely a different section of the hospital for the females. It was not as well stocked.”

Further, women were brought to the main ward only for certain surgical procedures, Brown said — doctors there usually saw them only if they were bleeding to death.

There were three female Navy medical personnel and one female Air Force nurse at Brown’s FOB. The women sold the idea of an all-female medical team to the local hospital.

Brown, an Atlanta native, said the local hospital administrator was concerned that insurgents might target his staff if they knew he was sending Afghan women to be treated by Americans, even if the caregivers were women.

But when the hospital began sending women of reproductive age to be cared for by the Americans, members of the medical team knew they had broken some barriers.

“We still faced quite a few cultural barriers, even with the females,” Brown said. “They were very hesitant for us to even treat them. We would have to try to expose their injuries, and it was just a really big deal to try to expose injuries, because they were so worried about being uncovered.”

The team managed to treat many female patients, and all but a few of them returned to the FOB for follow-up appointments, Brown said.

Because of her specialty, Brown treated a lot of broken bones and burns from vehicle and other accidents. Once, she recalled, she treated a woman whose steam-cooking appliance had exploded, severely burning her skin and nearly amputating her lower leg.

Brown received a Bronze Star for leading the female medical team, but she said it was a group effort.

“I think stories like these are lost when people continue to wonder, ‘What are we doing out there? What good are we doing out there?’” she said. “There’s still a lot of good being done out there.”

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