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AF surgeon exceeds expectations in Afghanistan

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Cohen A. Young
  • 455th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
(This feature is part of the "Through Airmen's Eyes" series on These stories focus on a single Airman, highlighting their Air Force story.)

When receiving a set of orders for a deployment, many service members are left with an assortment of questions: “What will I do, where will I go and will I make a difference?’

For Maj. Jonathan Forbes, a neurosurgeon assigned to the 455th Expeditionary Medical Group here, knew he would be deploying from sunny California to Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, where he would work at the Craig Joint Theater Hospital (CJTH) -- the busiest hospital in Afghanistan.

“In talking with some guys that have been here before, there’s this expectation of being involved in trauma surgery and war injuries,” said Forbes, a New Martinsville, West Virginia, native. “I had heard about the humanitarian hospital, but I didn’t really know what to expect, I didn’t know what kind of cases we would be seeing in comparison to the elective cases we see back home. I really didn’t know what to expect at all.”

According to Forbes working at CJTH is no easy task; many of the staff are on call 24/7 for trauma care for Afghan and American soldiers as well as contractors.

As a neurosurgeon, Forbes receives calls regarding any injuries to the brain or spinal column and any herniated discs American or Afghan service members may experience.
Since those injuries do not occur often, the 455th EMDG allows their doctors to assist in providing humanitarian services at another local hospital as well. Forbes and a few other doctors have been able to see patients during specific clinic hours at the Korean Humanitarian Hospital here. The Korean Hospital is staffed with Korean and Afghan doctors, which according to Forbes allows for an intersection of three cultures.
“It’s been great commiserating with the physicians and just talking with them about different cases,” Forbes said.

The process of seeing patients is a team effort from the start, as Afghan and Korean physicians see the patients and utilize CT scans to decide whether they may need the help of one of the American physicians.

With these partnerships, Forbes has built a bond with some of the Afghan physicians.

“I’ve learned a lot from Dr. Forbes,“ said Dr. Ahmed, an Afghan doctor with the hospital. “With him being a neurosurgeon, I’ve learned a lot about brain tumors, the place of the brain tumor and the spinal cord; the disc compression and the genetic change. With this training, when this hospital closes in June of 2015, I hope to open my own place.”

Forbes said he faced a few challenges along the way, due in large part to the limited equipment that was available – which made providing necessary services more difficult than usual.

“The surgical practice and what we choose to operate on doesn’t change much, but how we do it changes quite a bit,” Forbes said.

However, Forbes succeeded in overcoming these obstacles.
In one case, a woman suffered from tuberculosis. Her legs had grown weak and she had lost the ability to walk. Potts disease had developed in her spinal column, which caused the spinal cord to be pinched. Forbes’ team took bone from her fibula and reconstructed her spinal column, allowing the woman to recover greatly and walk again.

When he journeyed to Bagram Airfield, Forbes wasn’t sure what he would encounter. In the end, he said he was able to contribute and make a difference and learn from his deployment after performing 65 surgeries and conducting countless consultations.

“I had a certain set of expectations coming in and that was different than what I encountered,” Forbes said. “I have a better sense of the culture over here -- this is a nation over here fighting to establish itself. It’s been a pleasure serving here.”