Dr. Jason Huang is straight-forward in explaining why he joined the Army Reserve in 2003. "I am an immigrant and a scholar. This country gave me a great opportunity."
Behind that statement lies a story of overcoming challenges that left many others defeated, and a sense of giving back.
Huang was present in Tiananmen Square in June 1989 when several hundred protesters were killed protesting the repressive policies of the Chinese Communist government.
Rounded up, he was confined – house arrest – at Shanghai’s University of Science and Technology to brainwash him that the massacre never occurred. He also found himself academically blacklisted at the university where he had been majoring in engineering.
When released, Huang took what he saw as one of the few options still opened to him in China and studied acupuncture, an ancient medical practice in relieving pain.
Through family connections, then called Haitao, Huang eventually received a special passport to leave China. He arrived in Los Angeles in 1992, stayed for several months with relatives and worked as a busboy.
At 21, he began rebuilding his life. He also became known as Jason Huang during this time as a student at Amherst in Massachusetts and Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the neurosurgeon at the University of Rochester [N.Y.] Medical Center said, "I wanted to help wounded soldiers." His scholarly specialty is Traumatic Brain Injury. "Neuro-trauma is my specialty."
Huang completed his residency training in neurosurgery at the University of Pennsylvania in 2006 and then came to Rochester.
In 2004, he went to Army Officer Basic Training at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.
"I always liked studying the brain and was able to combine that with surgery." Huang, who was commissioned in 2003 and is being considered for promotion to lieutenant colonel, said comparing his experiences as a civilian practitioner to his deployment to Iraq, "It is very different. Trauma patient treatment [in civilian practice] is low intensity, one or two patients. [In the military], you could have mass casualties – 23 to 25 and it comes in waves. When you’re in surgery, you stay very busy; and the degree of injury is different – automobile vs. gunshot wounds."
The survival rate in combat casualty care is about 98 percent. During his 90 days "boots on the ground," he told a Rochester newspaper he treated about 1,200 soldiers. They also treated coalition forces, contractors, and Iraqi civilians.
"The hardest part was the children." He recalled for a University of Rochester publication that one time he treated several Iraqi children with severe head injuries who "looked like they were going to die." But instead they walked out of the hospital a few weeks later.
The two neurosurgeons, in essence, were providing that specialty care for the country.
The first person he treated at Balad was a contractor who had been shot in the head, but the bullet had not penetrated, with some bleeding and brain contusions. In the operating room, Huang removed the damaged tissue, the bullet and closed the scalp wound. He gave the contractor the bullet before he was later flown to Germany.
Huang said that some surgeries the team knew could wait if a second, life-saving surgery was required for a wounded soldier
Looking back at his deployment, he said, "We had great teamwork." He was one of two neurosurgeons; the other was Maj. Richard Clatterbuck, also in the Army Reserve. In addition, there were 15 general surgeons assigned to the Balad Theater Hospital. "There is no rank in the O.R. [operating room]. People are just trying to accomplish the goal."
Adding, "The motivation is to save patients. Sometimes, it was very tough – the kind of wounds, the head. It kept you going to save lives. It was real teamwork. We were standing on the shoulders of those who came before us."
One of the lessons he took away from the deployment was the necessity of doing aggressive surgery. That meant performing craniectomies, removing part of the skull to allow a swelling brain to expand, for example. "The part removed is called the brain flap" and it reduces pressure.
The cause of most of the severe injuries: "IEDs."
Huang said the Army hospital is in Baghdad. It was there that the surgical teams from the different services were put together. "There was good leadership; the commander would try to give it to us straight," he said about working at the newly-built hospital at Balad. "We spent a lot of time together," including free time playing poker.
"It can be dangerous. We had rocket attacks every day," including having one rocket land in front for the hospital.
He admitted to being "a little surprised and excited" at being assigned to a hospital like Balad. "For the most part, we are usually backfill," most often in the United States and usually at Walter Reed. "I had very little combat [casualty care] experience." Before arriving in Iraq, he underwent a week of training at Fort Benning, Ga., and then spent a few days receiving an orientation in Kuwait.
Huang said his wife, Kate Zhou, whom he first met in Shanghai as a student, was concerned about the deployment. "It was my opportunity to serve."
Back in Rochester, Huang and Dr. Jeffrey Bazarian, a colleague at Strong Memorial Hospital, have been researching traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress and other neurological disorders by identifying markers – specific proteins in blood to determine what is causing constant headaches.
"We have research grants" that could "maybe down the road" lead to a clinic concentrating on area of neurology. "The brain is the most important organ in the body."