Administration and Leadership, Industry News, News, Patient Care, Training, Trauma

The Soldiers’ Surgeon: Reflections on the life and death of John P. Pryor, MD

Issue 2 and Volume 34.

Growing up, there was rarely a Christmas when my father wasn’t on ambulance duty. Even though he was in charge of the ambulance division, my dad often worked so “his men” could be home with their families. This dedication was hard for people outside of our family to understand, but I understood and appreciated his passion and commitment. You see, he loved us, but we were his “small” family. His larger family consisted of his co-workers and the citizens he dedicated his life to serving. He felt compelled to provide care for them, particularly during the holidays, when tragedy is unexpected and particularly unwelcome. It’s difficult to accept the loss of a loved one to the passion of their work. Sometimes it’s for one shift, and other times it’s for eternity. This reality hit home for me this past Christmas when JEMS medical editor Ed Dickinson, MD, called to tell me John Pryor, MD, his close friend and colleague, had been killed while serving with the military in Iraq. John wasn’t just a talented and respected trauma surgeon; he was also a member of the JEMS editorial board. It was one of the many ways John was able to give back to the EMS community, which gave him his early introduction to, and passion for, emergency medicine. John began his career as an EMT 32 years ago with the Clifton Park-Halfmoon Emergency Corps in southern Saratoga County, N.Y. It was there, at age 17, that he met other young, eager volunteers like Dickinson and Mike McEvoy. Their friendship, like most in EMS, endured the test of time. Each advanced in their careers, with John completing medical school and general surgery training at the University of Buffalo and fellowship training in trauma surgery and critical care at the University of Pennsylvania. On 9/11, even though he was the director of a busy trauma center, he felt compelled to go to New York City to care for the providers at ground zero. The devastation he witnessed impacted him greatly and contributed to his decision to join the U.S. Army Reserve Medical Corps in order to offer his surgical expertise to our soldiers. This wasn’t a popular decision with his family, close friends and many of his Penn colleagues. But John felt strongly about serving his country and hoped his family and friends would eventually understand. He advanced to the rank of major and in 2006 served two active duty tours as the trauma surgeon for the 344th Combat Support Hospital in Abu Ghraib, Iraq. But he wasn’t fully satisfied with this level of deployment and lobbied to be sent to the front lines where he could best serve our soldiers with his advanced surgical skills. John gave the world a glimpse into his soul in a 2006 article in The Philadelphia Inquirer when he wrote, “As a trauma surgeon, every death I have is painful; every one takes a little out of me. Losing these kids here in Iraq rips a hole through my soul so large that it’s hard for me to continue breathing.” In early December 2008, he was assigned to the 1st Forward Surgical Team. In e-mails to his colleagues back home, John said he was glad to be able to offer our troops the level of trauma care they deserved. After attending midnight mass in Mosul on Christmas Eve, John retired to his living quarters. Shortly thereafter, a mortar round exploded close to his trailer, killing him instantly. On a special site ( created by John’s brother Richard, also an emergency physician, John’s friend and trauma colleague Kenneth Mattox, MD, summed up what many of us felt: “John trained in his chosen profession to be the medical adventurer that is an understandable, underlying and unquenchable force which is present in each of us. Going to the heart of danger, both in the large inner city hospital, as well as in a war in way off lands, we see the toughest of the tough; the task which others might retreat or shirk from, John found his peace while attempting to piece together the most complex of cases.” He added, “It was [John’s] fate to patch up the secondary effects of man’s inhumanity to man. Some knew John peripherally or were just learning of his developing career trajectory. Still others only suffer as they know John represents the kind of surgical spirit that all surgeons possess. Yes, John Pryor had the trauma surgeon’s genome. There is no need for question or discussion. We each, in our own way, know exactly why John was in Iraq. On another day, the loss could have been any one of us.” Rest in peace Major Pryor. You were an outstanding husband, father and friend. And you were more than a soldier’s soldier; you were the soldiers’ surgeon.