Dr. D.J. Green has the look and build of a soldier, but his expertise lies in saving lives in the operating room, where shrapnel wounds and gunshots were common cases in the trauma centers in which he served throughout Iraq and Afghanistan.
In April, Green, a graduate of the University of Arizona, returned home to Oro Valley from a third tour in Iraq, wrapping up 10 years of service in the U.S. Navy. In August, he will begin working with the trauma team at University Medical Center, under the direction of Dr. Peter Rhee, UMC’s chief of trauma.
During his service, Green played an important role in U.S. military efforts. While the 42-year-old traded in a gun for scrubs and gloves, some would say his role was just as important because his duty was to save lives and train others to prepare for work inside wartime trauma centers.
“I guess it’s as close to the front lines as you can be, but instead, being in a hospital,” Green said. “I don’t think it’s as tough as what actual Marines and soldiers do, but it’s still tough. It’s tough to see a lot of people get hurt.”
After his tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, the surgeon spent six years at the Navy Trauma Training Center, located at the Los Angeles County Medical Center. His training centered around preparing doctors, nurses and other staff members for what they would see in the trauma centers in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the injuries are much more complex than those seen in a traditional emergency room.
“The injuries out there are unique – they are not what we see in the civilian world,” said Green. “It’s a different kind of trauma because it’s very destructive. We worked on Iraqis, enemy combatants – pretty much anyone who came in hurt. There were a few kids. Even without the war, it’s just easy to get hurt in Iraq. There is a gun in every house, and people get shot a lot. The worst of it was Americans, and it wasn’t from gunshots, it was from (improvised explosive devices) and rockets.”
No matter how serious the injury, Green said they had to act quickly to get the patient ready for the next level of care. The trauma surgeon’s primary goal is “damage control,” which means stopping the bleeding, controlling contamination, keeping the patient warm and stabilized enough to move on to hospitals in Baghdad or Balad, and then on to Germany.
Green said training soldiers and volunteers to work in Iraq took on a personal tie last year, when his 20-year-old son joined the military.
“It personalized it for me because I knew someone in training could be working on my kid,” he said. “Of course all of the people we see in uniform are like your own kid.”
Like many soldiers, Green said he joined the military to do his part in a time of war. Proud of his service, he said he felt like he entered the military at the right time and is leaving at the right time.
“It was 10 years, four deployments (plus) six years of full-time trauma at L.A. County,” he said. “It really couldn’t have been better. I don’t know if everyone would say that, but the deployments are the best part. It’s where you really get to do your job and feel like you are part of the effort.”
Now, Green is looking forward to being back home in Tucson, bringing what he gained from the battlefield to local trauma centers.
“The origin of trauma care is from the battlefields. Being out there made me a lot more empathetic, a lot more compassionate,” said Green. “It’s always hard to talk to family members, but to talk to the buddies – the fellow Marines of a hurt guy – was hard. I could really relate to them. I could see how painful it is for them to go through having someone get hurt or killed.”
Choosing to work at UMC was an easy decision for Green, who sees Dr. Rhee has his mentor.
Rhee recruited Green to work at the Navy Trauma Training Center, and is happy to be reuniting in Tucson.
“He has been a fabulous surgeon with vast clinical experience at one of the nation’s busiest trauma centers,” said Rhee, a 24-year military surgeon who also treated military injuries during his time in Iraq and Afghanistan. “In addition, he has returned from a deployment supporting the Special Operations Forces. He is a respected surgeon, well known in our community, and comes to Tucson with battlefield experience. We are fortunate to have him join our team.”
That team has gained national accolades over the last year. Rhee brought national attention to UMC after leading the efforts to save the lives of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords’ and others on Jan. 8 after an assassination attempt.
Green said those efforts demonstrated the level of care UMC is capable of providing, and what Rhee has done to set such a high standard.
“Dr. Rhee is really a leader. He is excellent at it. He really has a vision for what he wants to do. I will be the ninth trauma surgeon, and when he came there were two. He’s a big part of the reason I came back. With Dr. Rhee here it was a no-brainer. He’s been my mentor since 2004, and really hasn’t steered me wrong yet,” Green explained.
Green will not only serve on the UMC surgical rotation for the Level I trauma center, he will also be the medical director of trauma services at the University Physicians Hospital at Kino, which is a Level III center.
“Trauma surgery is for people who really need immediate gratification; you don’t get to plan what you are going to do,” Green said. “You are there and you just do it. There are sacrifices. You have to be in house, sleep in the hospital, be up late at night, and you have to be able to relate to trauma patients. They’re not all good citizens who are in car wrecks. It’s not all bad luck. You have some out there making their own fun, and they do it more than once, too.”
Rhee called Green a mature surgeon who is a good choice to run the Kino operations.
Green will officially take over as Kino’s director of trauma on Aug. 1. However, until then, he said he plans to focus on his family, being with his wife and 3-year-old son, and in the process, learn to be a civilian again.