Serving Those Who Serve Their Country

Posted in GUMC Stories

November 13, 2016 – As a military physician serving in Iraq, Geoffrey Ling, MD, PhD, retired U.S. Army colonel, treated a patient who had suffered an injury serious enough to be sent home but not severe enough to cause permanent disability. However, when Ling told the patient that he was going home, the patient began to cry. At home, the patient said, he was an assistant manager at a fast food restaurant but in Iraq, he was helping Iraqi citizens rebuild their country.

“He is willing to put himself in harm’s way to help others,” said Ling, a Georgetown University School of Medicine alum. “These are the kids that we take care of. We are so freaking blessed that we get to take care of them while they are doing the hard job.”

Ling spoke about his experiences as a military physician during the fourth annual Ruggles Lecture on Military Medicine. The November 9 lecture, held in the W. Proctor Harvey Clinical Teaching Amphitheater, was part of a celebration of Veterans Wellness Week and the AAMC Joining Forces Initiative.

The courage of the servicemembers Ling treated inspired him to strive to give them the best health care possible. “When you say your country is under attack, who responds? It’s them,” he said. “So we as providers have to give them the very best care. And I believe we can’t be satisfied with ‘good enough.’ That is just unacceptable for these fine young people.”

Developing Strategies for Concussion Care

During his service, Ling found that screening and treatment of concussions was inconsistent so he helped create the first large system-wide approach to concussion management, leading to an order from the Secretary of Defense that required screenings for service members who may have experienced a concussion. He also helped develop a concussion screening tool.    

“A lot of these guys will say ‘I feel fine’ and then you screen them and find out they’re not fine,” Ling said. “And that was really the point.”

Ling also worked to develop guidelines for clinical care and return to duty, and helped establish concussion care centers in the field to help patients stay connected with their units while they recovered.

“We found at the very end that we were able to return to duty 98% of injured service members with a concussion within seven days” without a single case of post-concussion syndrome, Ling said. “That tells you that when we pulled people off, allowed them to heal, put them in the right environment, give them neuropsychometrics, you can actually make a positive impact.”

Developing New Technologies to Serve Service Members

The attitude among military physicians and nurses made his experiences especially rewarding, Ling said. “The attitude changes dramatically from civilian side to war side,” he said. “The can-do attitude is pervasive. That’s the best part. The best part is everybody helps everyone and arrogance goes away.”

That can-do attitude led Ling to pursue technological advances that would help military physicians care for their patients, such as the SAVE mini-ventilator, an FDA-approved handheld rescue respirator currently in use by military medics, and the DEKA arm, the world’s most sophisticated arm and hand robot prosthesis.

As the founding director of the Biological Technologies Office at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Ling led efforts to create innovative prosthetic robotic devices that can be controlled by the brains of fully paralyzed individuals, allowing them to carry out the important tasks of daily living, such as feeding and grooming.

Most recently, Ling founded OnDemand Pharmaceuticals Inc., which is developing a generic medication manufacturing technology to provide affordable medications to everyone everywhere. “Our vision is to put this in every combat support hospital,” he said.

“When you’re out there, you’re not important,” Ling said. “Who’s important is your patient. And that’s the way it should always be.”

Kat Zambon
GUMC Communications