Baptist Health Orthopedic Surgeon Recalls His Service in Operation Desert Storm – Baptist Health South Florida

November 12, 2022
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November 11, 2022
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During his orthopedic surgery residency, Baptist Health Orthopedic Care’s Keith Hechtman, M.D., orthopedic sports medicine surgeon, was invited to be one of the first participants in the Specialized Training Assistance Program (STRAP), offered by the U.S. Army Reserve as an enlistment incentive for orthopedic and thoracic surgeons whose highly specialized skills were needed here at home and abroad.
Dr. Hechtman was intrigued and he enlisted. In January 1991, Operation Desert Storm was launched by the U.S. and its allies to liberate Kuwait, which had been invaded and occupied by Iraq the year before. The Army needed more orthopedic surgeons in the field. Dr. Hechtman, who was by then working at Doctors Hospital in Coral Gables, was activated and deployed to Saudi Arabia, where he was assigned to a Forward Surgical Team, or FST, supporting the 3rd Armored Division, the lead unit in the liberation of Kuwait.
FSTs – treating soldiers on the front lines
Early on in Operation Desert Storm, it had become clear that the traditional mobile army surgical hospitals (MASH) and combat support hospitals (CSH) were not agile enough for modern warfare, according to authors of an article in the journal ICU Management & Practice. The speed at which the front moved during that war prolonged the amount of time it took to transport injured U.S. troops to those MASH and CSH units.
The article describes FSTs as a way to speed critical care to injured troops on the front lines:
“The FST was conceived as a highly mobile surgical unit that could perform damage control surgery near the front line. It is intended to provide a rapid response to the 10-15 percent of patients that need surgical stabilization of their condition (generally involving hemorrhagic shock) before transportation to a higher level of care, such as a CSH. The FST generally consists of a 20-person team, which ideally includes an orthopedic surgeon, three general surgeons and two nurse anesthetists. It is designed to be deployed and operational within one hour of arrival in the combat zone.”
Dr. Hechtman spent two months with his FST, performing emergency surgeries on injured U.S. soldiers as well as Iraqi soldiers and civilians – in some of the harshest of conditions. “We were out in the middle of the desert where it was dusty and dirty. We had limited rations, no bathrooms and sometimes we’d go days or weeks without a shower,” Dr. Hechtman says. “The operating conditions weren’t exactly the cleanest and not like a real hospital where everything is sterile and you have all the equipment you need to do the job.”
After exchanging letters about his Desert Storm working conditions with his colleagues at Doctors Hospital, Dr. Hechtman was surprised a couple of weeks later when he and his FST unit received a large shipment from Doctors Hospital, filled with scrub brushes, germicidal scrubs and other badly needed surgical and sterilization supplies. “It was much appreciated,” he says.
Later, Dr. Hechtman was stationed at the Kuwait Airport, which had been heavily damaged in a fierce battle earlier that year, where he treated soldiers and civilians while the war raged on.
When Operation Desert Storm ended in late February 1991, Dr. Hechtman remained in Kuwait for another month or so, treating casualties relating to mine cleanups and performing physical exams on soldiers returning to the U.S.
Dr. Hechtman began his Desert Storm deployment with the rank of Captain but received a battlefield promotion to Major, along with two Army commendation medals and a medal from the Saudi government for his service. He spent a total of 12 years in the Reserves and now has a busy practice with Baptist Health Orthopedic Care, where he has worked for 34 years.
Always wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon
For as long as he can remember, Dr. Hechtman knew he wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon – perhaps because he was in such frequent need of their services as a child.
“I was pretty active. I managed to break my wrist, my ankle…I was always breaking something, it seems,” recalls Dr. Hechtman, who was born and raised in Miami and spent much of his childhood playing outdoors. “I saw a lot of surgeons as a kid and they always took care of me, so I decided I wanted to be like them – even back in elementary school.”
Today, Dr. Hechtman specializes in both sports medicine and arthroscopy of the shoulder, elbow and knee. He serves as the team physician for Florida International University and served as a physician for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.
The best country in the world
Dr. Hechtman says his experience serving in Operation Desert Storm shaped his life forever. “It’s an experience you take with you for the rest of your life,” he says. “You mature a lot, very quickly.” He says he feels proud that he was able to serve his country, noting that his father served as a medic in World War II and his father-in-law served as an Honor Guard for The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and for President Eisenhower.
“I’ve lectured and traveled around the world but I always remind myself how lucky we are to be able to live here in the United States,” Dr. Hechtman says. “It’s the best country in the world and I feel privileged that I was able to give back. If what I did helped in some small way to preserve our country, then it was worth it.”
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