How Surgeons Help Put War Vets Back Together, For Free
Nicole Karlis on 31 Aug 2013 at 9:00am
Rebuilding America's Warriors is connecting injured servicemen and plastic surgeons, with amazing results.
Paul McQuigg was more thankful than most on Thanksgiving Day in 2007 to be stuffing his face with food.
After spending months ingesting meals from a feeding tube, Paul ate actual food through his mouth, something doctors told him would probably never happen again.
"I had turkey and mashed potatoes. It was great because it was Thanksgiving and I was grateful to have these functions back," he says. In the U.S. Marine Corps, Paul, 36, served in Iraq as a Staff Sgt. in the 3rd Amphibious Assault Battalion Bravo Company.
His time was cut short after a roadside bomb went off on February 27, 2006. After three surgeries, Paul was still left with a shattered jaw and only 40 percent of his tongue remaining. Surgeons repaired his jaw with the help of an external fixator, but said his tongue was something that couldn't be fixed.
"I wasn’t able to eat orally. I took all my medication and my food through my feeding tube. I’d take supplements," he says.
Facing a future with the inability to eat or drink through his mouth at 30, and learning to live with a new speech impairment, it wasn't until Paul heard about Maggie Lockridge and Rebuilding America's Warriors (R.A.W.), an organization that provides free plastic surgery to war veterans, that eating solid food became a possibility again.
He learned about the non-profit, at the time known as Iraq Star, from his civilian nurse, who read about it in the local newspaper, and contacted Maggie. “My mom did most of the talking because my speech was impaired because of the loss of tongue,” says Paul.
At the time, the organization didn't have a doctor who could reconstruct his tongue, but that didn't stop them from acting as a facilitator. Maggie got in touch with Dr. Bruce Haughey from Washington University in St. Louis, who worked with cancer patients, and said he could probably repair his tongue. Paul flew down to St. Louis and his life changed from there.
"He called me on Thanksgiving and said, 'Maggie I just had turkey for Thanksgiving,'" says Maggie. "And then he called me in January and said 'Maggie, the tube is out of my stomach,' and he was just talking with a slight lisp."
Maggie founded R.A.W. in 2005 after running a swanky reconstruction recovery facility in the Beverly Hills hotel. Once she sold it to two women, she was inspired to start R.A.W. after touring veteran hospitals and noticing there was a need for a plastic surgeon's service.
"I started writing my 30 favorite surgeons in Los Angeles and they all came on board, I wanted to know if they would provide free surgery for the young wounded," she says. Since 2005, R.A.W. has expanded to a network of 289 surgeons in 47 states. They've helped 110 veterans, including Paul. "We treat burn scars. We fix cracked teeth. We remove tattoos that are no longer wanted," she says.
And everything is for free. Dr. S. Larry Schlesinger, who practices in Hawaii, is one of the doctors part of the organization. He's now helped six vets since joining, including Ryan Goede, who is a three-time recipient of the Purple Heart medal. Ryan lost vision in his left eye and had stones and rocks in his face after he was caught in an improvised explosive device (IED) blast.
"When Ryan came in, he was literally willing to pay for it. I told him his money is no good," says Dr. Schlesinger, himself a military veteran. "He said he didn't feel like himself and he was embarrassed."
Dr. Schlesinger, who specializes in facial plastic surgery, says that even if he couldn't have helped Ryan, he would have made sure one of his surgeon friends did. Dr. Schlesinger took the shrapnel out of Ryan's face and helped him regain his confidence back.
"It’s a gift to us, my whole crew just loves it when we do it because we all feel good about doing. This just gives you a good feeling about your value in the world. It helps them; it helps us; it helps everybody," he says.
Returning to Normalcy
Even though the organization has helped over one-hundred wounded soldiers, Paul's story continues to stick with Maggie. "Although the military put his jaw back together beautifully they essentially told him, 'Sorry we don’t have anybody who reconstructs tongues.' And they put a tube in his stomach and he was left with a tube in his stomach," says Maggie. "He couldn't swallow and he was left virtually in this horrendous situation."
While Paul, who currently resides in Oceanside, Calif., still is part of the Wounded Warrior Battalion-West (WWBN-West) unit, he plans on taking his medical retirement on July 30, 2013, to spend more time with his fiance, nine-year-old son Sebastian and dog Coco. But when he's not spending time with his family, he's touring the country and informing fellow wounded vets about R.A.W. with Maggie.
“I’ve gotten back to a sense of normalcy. I can communicate with my fiance, with my friends, I’m better at what I do due to what Iraq Star did to me," Paul says. “I owe a lot of my life’s happiness now to what Iraq Star helped me do."