Army Lt. Col. David King operates in a hospital on a forward operating base in Afghanistan while wearing a Massachusetts General cap. (Courtesy of Lt. Col. David King /Army)
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King runs in the 2013 Boston Marathon. He had crossed the finish line and left the site with his family when the bombs went off April 15. (Courtesy of Lt. Col. David King/Army)
A dozen years of battle injuries have led to significant advancements in military trauma care. But nowhere was this more evident to the general public than in Boston on April 15. Thanks largely to lessons learned treating combat-wounded troops, 264 injured bystanders and runners survived, despite suffering injuries ranging from severed legs and penetration wounds to severe head injuries. Army Reserve Lt. Col. David King, a trauma surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital, drew on skills honed in Iraq and Afghanistan to save lives that day. He spoke with Military Times by phone April 23 to discuss his experience.
Q. Can you describe what you were doing when you found out about the bombings?
A. I crossed the finish line at 3:12, which is actually slow for me, and by the time I got through the maze at the end, it was about 15 minutes before the bomb went off. To get to me, my family — my wife, my little kids, my parents — walked right past bomb No. 1. But we met up and hopped in a cab to go home. On the way, I got a text message that there had been a bombing, so I dropped the family off and went straight to the hospital. The first wave of patients was just coming in. I looked over all five, took the one who was bleeding the most and tightened their tourniquets and went to the OR. From the time I arrived at the hospital to the time I was taking the first patient to the operating room, it was about 90 seconds.
Q. Any flashbacks?
A. No one had to tell me what happened. I knew it immediately. The injury patterns were the same thing I’d seen in Iraq and Afghanistan: multiple fragmentation, bilateral lower-extremity blast wounds. It was like I was sitting in the [forward surgical team] in Logar province. ... It felt exactly the same as the bombing of Camp Saidabad [in Wardak province, Afghanistan]. My forward surgical team saw 43 patients in the first 30 minutes. In Boston, we operated nonstop for 30 hours.
Q. None of your trauma surgeon colleagues at Mass General are veterans. Had you shared your experiences with them?
A. The Army has been very good at publicizing the advances in care for mangled extremities from blast injuries, publishing those experiences in peer-reviewed literature. What that means is all of our colleagues — anyone who works in a Level One trauma center — may not have been to war and seen and treated these exact injuries, but the lessons we’ve learned on the battlefield, they know all about them. I can’t tell you enough how important the last 12 years of military experience has helped these patients. I have no doubt that the collective experience and surgeons reading about and learning the lessons of the last decade of war helped every single one of these bombing patients.
Q. What was it like to have this happen in your hometown?
A. It’s crazy. When you are deployed, you expect it. You like to believe the reason we are over there is to prevent it from coming to the homeland again. That’s the arching principle of why we are there, to take the fight to them. So it’s a little surreal when it happens in your own country. It’s a little bit more surreal that it happens in your own state, crazy that it happens in your own city and almost unfathomable that it happened in my own marathon.
Q. You have been running marathons for almost a decade and plan to run in the New York City Marathon in November. What happens next April on Patriot's Day in Massachusetts?
A. Boston next year? We’re already planning it. I just met with [marathon legend] Bill Rodgers and we’re putting together a running team for next year. We’re all going to run it together, as a pack, going at the pace of the slowest runner. The group is going to include a bunch of us who are first responders, some patients who are recovering and family members. Boston next year is going to be bigger and better than ever.