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Removing Fear May Lead to Better Health Outcomes

Why do some individuals recover from injury, illness or surgery more quickly than others?  How does the atmosphere of thought – how and what those around the patient communicate with him or her concerning their condition and their recovery contribute to rapid return to health?

At a recent conference called “Patients at the Crossroads – Reconciling Patient-Centered Care, Evidence-Based Practice and Integrative Medicine, sponsored by The Samueli Institute, the recently retired Surgeon General of the Army, LtGen Eric B. Schoomaker, had some fascinating observations.

LtGen Schoomaker served as surgeon general  from December 2007 to December 2011, four years with some of the greatest numbers of combat injuries from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Speaking at the forum about a review he conducted to understand trends in treatment of combat related injuries of all types he found that two types of injuries had consistent recovery times and success rates.   The two types were amputees and burn victims.

He said, (from my notes as a member of the audience) “when a soldier first awakens from surgery – whether in Afghanistan, Germany or back in the states, there is a nurse or doctor there to tell them;   ‘We’ve seen this kind of injury before, we know how to get you back on your feet, you are going to be ok”.

Could this immediate, reassuring message – delivered with calm assurance, care and love  by a fellow service member -  begin to displace fear of loss, fear of lost opportunities, doubts about recovery.

In my experience, when faced with a crisis, I have often been blessed by reassuring, confident words from a trusted friend.

In 1973, while deployed to the Mediterranean sea onboard the USS Independence (CV-62), I was a pilot in Attack Squadron Sixty Five.  We flew the A-6 Intruder, a medium all weather bomber.  In this aircraft, the pilot and bombardier/navigator sat side by side.  During deployments, the value of crew concept – was very important, so the same pilot and B/N flew together whenever possible.

My B/N “Slick” Vance and I had launched from the deck around sunset for some practice bombing runs at a target about 100 miles from the ship.  Suddenly we heard a loud “pop”.   We looked at each other, then I looked forward and saw that the glass in my bullet proof windscreen had shattered and although (by design) still intact, it was opaque.  I could not see a thing.  Fortunately, Slick’s windshield had not been damaged, but there were no controls on his side of the plane.  What to do.  The ship expected us to be in a holding pattern to land in 45 minutes.   To our knowledge no one had ever landed an A-6 with a broken windshield at night.  Night landings on an aircraft carrier are dicey in the best conditions.  Our other option was to contact the diver field on Souda Bay in the Greek island of Crete and attempt to land there.

Slick had been given the call sign Slick because of his enormous confidence, some would have said overconfidence, about ever thing.  Slick had more confidence in my ability as a pilot than I did.   He never expressed any doubt that I would bring the plane aboard safely.  This along with my own prayers eliminated all fear.  My prayer was simple:  “Father, let me express your wisdom to make the right decisions and calm to take whatever steps I need to take”.

We talked over the two options and decided to call the ship and request landing aboard.* Slick would be my eyes and talk me down with the help of the LSO (landing signal officer).

I will be forever grateful that my Commanding Officer went to bat for us with the Captain of the ship to give us one “try” at the deck.  Naval aviation history is full of planes landing off- centerline, long or short and crashing into the ship.

The ship decided to land all the other aircraft before we tried (just in case we messed up the deck).   With Slick’s confident “you’re a little high”, “a little fast”, plus guidance from the LSO, we caught a “2” wire and landed safely.   I had to open the canopy and lean out the side to follow the flight director to my spot on deck.  As soon as I stopped, our Ops officer, a decorated combat veteran, came up the ladder to shake our hands on the safe landing.

I never would have made that landing if I had been tense or fearful.   In the ensuing years, I have found that surrounding myself with confident, supportive friends and eliminating fear has served me again and again in career, health and family matters.

And, from what Lt. Gen. Schoomaker said, these elements are also serving our present day heroes as they recover from combat injury.

*The airfield at Souda Bay was not fully manned at night.  At one end of the runway the land drops off a cliff to the ocean.  At the other end of the runway there is a mountain.  Even if we landed on the runway during the high speed rollout there was a good chance of running off the runway, flipping over, etc.