Mass. Army Surgeon Transitions Back to Life in the ER

Col. Timothy Counihan is finding plenty of connections between what he learned at the war zone operating table and the needs of trauma patients rolling into the Pittsfield ER.


Sunday January 29, 2012, PITTSFIELD -- Fresh from the last days of the Iraq War, Col. Timothy Counihan is still regaining his bearings in civilian life. But as a surgeon, he's finding plenty of connections between what he learned at the war zone operating table and the needs of trauma patients rolling into the Pittsfield ER.

Among the last U.S. troops to leave Iraq on Dec. 17, 2011, Counihan went from commanding the 917th Forward Surgical Team back to chairing the department of surgery at Berkshire Medical Center.

The Hinsdale resident, 48, has been a member of the Army Reserves for almost two decades as an emergency surgeon for troops, enemies and civilians in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. His Taunton-based team of 20 clinicians has had to create operating rooms out of goat sheds and work to keep patients clear of the ever-present dust in the air.

Medical advances like the ubiquitous use of tourniquets and specialized hemostatic dressings to stem bloodflow from a wound, as well as blood transfusions -- rather than saline -- for a traumatic injury began in makeshift operating rooms during the war on terror. Now, they're making their way back to trauma care for all Americans.

"These advances on the military side are constantly spilling into civilian practice," Counihan said. "We move along as a group."

During his first year at BMC, Counihan, who transferred from St. Vincent's Hospital in Worcester in 2006, treated a young man who'd crashed a car into a tree, shattering his liver. The military tactic of blood transfusions, Counihan said, helped the patient recover from an injury that otherwise has a 50 percent chance of death.

Trained as a colorectal surgeon, Counihan likened his Iraq medical duties to the work of a Civil War surgeon. Because technological improvements have made it possible to transfer the wounded out of the Middle East quickly, he said, his job is limited to stabilizing patients so they can get more complex treatment elsewhere.

Counihan has come to cherish the work.

"Taking care of soldiers is a particular joy," he said. "There are no better patients than soldiers. You're on the same team with them --it's almost like operating on a family member."

The station where Counihan stayed for most of his last eight-month deployment, called Garry Owen, was about 1,500 troops strong -- a group he compared to Hinsdale, a town where everyone knows your name.

Of course, the simile only goes so far. At home in Hinsdale, there are no mortar strikes, and tourniquets are in short supply. In Iraq, for what Counihan believes will be his last deployment, he withstood more than 19 rocket attacks, one of which was in the middle of a surgery. When that strike started, Counihan and his team crouched down, held pressure to the patient's open wound, and then resumed working.

In honor of such acts, the county's Here at Home Committee erected a billboard of Counihan's visage that currently looks out from the corner of Tyler and Brown streets in Pittsfield.

"We're very proud of him," said city veterans services director Rosanne Frieri. "It's a great thing, and we're glad he's back safely."

To reach Amanda Korman: akorman@berkshireeagle.com (413) 496-6243