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Friday, July 25, 2014

Surgeon saves lives in dangerous places

BY TONY ADAME
The Wichita Eagle

On the afternoon of May 29, a local villager brought his badly burned, 18-month old daughter to the small military compound deep in northwestern Afghanistan.

A team of Air Force surgeons treated and cleaned the burns covering 35 percent of her body for several hours before three of them, including Maj. Erik Nott, broke for dinner.

From where he sat, underneath a canopy fashioned from an old parachute, the Wichita native could see the fertile mountains of the Badghis Province.

He finished his dinner and stretched his 6-foot-7, 250-pound frame out on the porch behind the medical hut. He made small talk with the other surgeons for maybe 10 minutes before the Taliban began their attack.

First, a whistle across the sky, followed by an explosion. Then bursts of heavy machine gun fire that peppered the ground all around them.

Nott grabbed the two surgeons and began to run.

• • • 

Jill Nott does not consider herself a military wife. She is a doctor’s wife first, if only because she thinks it might actually be a little harder.

“If you’ve been through a residency, you know what I mean ... it kind of trained me for the military part,” Jill said. “I never got to see (Erik) when he was in residency because they’re working like 80-hour weeks. I would strap the baby to my back and mow the front yard, and my neighbors would be like, ‘Oh my goodness, you’re so amazing,’ and I was like, ‘No, I’m just a woman who wants to get her yard mowed.’ ”

She was Jill Vannaman when they began dating their junior year at Wichita Northwest High School. They were married shortly after Erik graduated from Friends University and received his Air Force commission in the fall of 1998 at McConnell Air Force Base.

The Air Force paid for three of four years of Erik’s medical school at the University of Kansas, and Jill’s job as a nurse paid for the rest. Erik would laugh and call her his “sugar mama.”

He graduated from KU in 2002 and they moved their small family – daughter Savannah was born in 2001 – to San Antonio, where Erik did his orthopedic residency at the University of Texas Health Science Center.

• • • 

The three surgeons were about 25 to 30 yards from a small alleyway that could provide cover from the Taliban fire raining down from the mountains. They sprinted toward safety as the ground around their feet crackled with bullets.

“It felt like something kicked me, smacked me in the leg,” Nott said. “I thought maybe a rock had hit me.”

Once inside, Nott noticed his sock beginning to fill with blood.

• • • 

By 2007, the Notts had added two more to their brood – Caleb in 2003 and Emilia in 2005 – and had settled into a somewhat-normal life thanks to a military sponsorship that raised Erik’s salary enough that Jill could stay at home with the kids.

It was around the end of his residency in 2007 that Erik began talking with a consultant from the Air Force about where he would be stationed.

Erik didn’t get his top choice, but he got close. The consultant gave him the options of Hurlburt Field or Eglin Air Force Base. Everybody knew that special operations were based out of Hurlburt, in Fort Walton Beach, Fla.

So he talked it over with Jill, who told him she just wanted him to do what was going to make him happy.

“I didn’t want to be in a clinic every day; I wanted to see the world in a different way than most people will ever get to see it,” Erik said. “So I called the consultant back and told him Hurlburt. Give me special ops ... I wanted to get my hands dirty. I guess I’m a little different.”

He would be part of an elite group of Air Force surgeons trained specifically to go into military hot zones and provide support to special missions.

First came the Farah Province in Afghanistan in 2009. Then Croatia later that year.

In January 2010, Nott was between surgeries at the base hospital when a call came in: They needed him in Haiti, where a 7.0-magnitude earthquake had devastated the country.

“I told them I was getting ready to go into surgery, but I’d leave as soon as it was over,” he said. “A couple of hours later, I was on my way to Haiti.”

He stayed there for two weeks; that summer he was in Africa.

Then, this spring, he got the call to go back to Afghanistan.

• • • 

Beginning in November 2010, Special Operations Task Force 8212 waged a fierce, six-month battle against the Taliban throughout the Badghis Province, setting up shop in a walled-in, four-house compound in a small valley essential to the Taliban’s stronghold in that region.

The 8212 forces, a mixture of special ops from different branches of the military, were under constant fire from the enemy from the moment they touched down — a total of 83 attacks from November through spring of this year.

So it was a nice surprise for some of the 8212 when they saw a familiar face in Nott among the group of eight surgeons that came to them as part of a medical military unit in the first days of spring.

Wartime surgeons, they knew, were hard to come by, and Nott was unique. He was a man who would eat meals with them, cut their hair – “The doc, he’ll heal you up, then he’ll cut you up,” one of them said, laughing – and they knew if they got wounded in battle, he’d be on the helicopter with the team that came for them.

When the Taliban attack began on May 29, the leader of the 8212 – a man with more than 13 years of service in places like Kosovo and Iraq – moved quickly to grab his sniper rifle so he could get up to the roof and return fire. Part of his service had been with Nott two years earlier in Afghanistan.

As instructed, the surgeons gathered around his room for a head count. Whenever there was an attack that was the protocol.

“Nott’s been shot,” he heard one of them say.

• • • 

When the shooting finally stopped, the group of surgeons moved back to the medical hut and began to treat Nott’s wound. The bullet had barely missed hitting the muscle and missed the tibia by about a millimeter.

Stitched up, Nott refused evacuation to a bigger facility to stay with his team.

Less than one week later, members of the 8212 killed two Taliban commanders inside the Badghis Province, bringing enemy attacks to a halt in the province.

Nott’s wounds took about two months to heal, and he still doesn’t know how he got so lucky.

“Every now and then I kind of look at where I got shot at and the location of the wound and wonder how in the world a bullet ever got to where I was at,” Nott said. “A couple of millimeters one way and I don’t get hit at all ... a couple of millimeters the other way and it’s pretty bad.

“I’m lucky. There are a lot of Marines and soldiers and airmen out there with no legs and no arms.”

• • • 

On Nov. 7, Nott was awarded the Purple Heart for being wounded by enemy fire.

He now works as an orthopedic surgeon at St. Louis University Hospital under an agreement between the hospital and the Air Force to keep its special-operations surgical teams at the highest level of medical readiness.

He was able to call his wife after he was shot, just hours before her older sister Kaci’s wedding.

“I didn’t tell the kids because I didn’t want them to worry about their dad,” said Jill, who gave birth to their fourth child, Isaac, in 2008. “So we’d do a lot of hushed tones, and they’d hear people asking about their dad and want to know what was wrong.

“When he’s deployed I like to play the ignorance card, anyway. I don’t watch the news; I don’t concern myself with any of that stuff. This was a little more difficult.

“It’s never easy. If anybody ever says it’s easy, they’re not telling the truth.”

Back home now, Erik is concerned with wanting his children to know how much he loves them. He goes to their soccer games. He helps them with their homework. He plays with them outside. He sets up obstacle courses in their basement. And he loves his work.

“Working in orthopedics is truly my passion,” he said. “I go to work every day with a smile on my face.”

He also knows that at any moment a call could come and he would have to leave all of this behind and ship off to some far corner of the earth where men like the ones of the 8212 fight.

But it is in places like this where they need men like him the most.

Reach Tony Adame at 316-268-6284 or tadame@wichitaeagle.com.

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