TEMPLE — Dr. Jason H. Huang’s military service may have ended, but he continues to help veterans through his work at Baylor Scott & White Health-Central Texas.
Huang came on board as the chairman of the neurosurgery department in January, and began growing the department in size and in the scope of its research.
“We are very unique in Central Texas,” he said. “We really have a large population of soldiers and veterans here. We want to make the best use of the environment and provide the best care.”
Huang always had an interest in trauma surgery, which is part of the reason he served nine years in the Army Reserves.
Born in China, Huang was involved in the student protest in Tiananmen Square in 1989, and then was blocked by the government from seeking higher education. In 1992, he came to America under political asylum status, eventually earning citizenship and a scholarship to medical school at John Hopkins University in Maryland.
“That was one of the reasons that in 2003, I decided to join the Army Reserve,” he said. “If I get all the benefits, then I should do something to pay back.”
In 2008, while working as an attending at the University of Rochester in New York, Huang was called up to deploy to Iraq.
He spent three months as one of two neurosurgeons in the country, working 40 hours on, 40 hours off, performing one brain surgery after another. Once the surgery was complete, Huang said recovering soldiers were sent to Germany within 24 hours.
Huang also operated on Iraqi soldiers and civilians.
“Iraqi children we treated all the time,” he said. “That’s a priority for us to try to save children. They are just victims of the war. We actually had some nice interactions with the children and their parents. That was a gratifying experience.”
Most of the wounds he treated were blast injuries from roadside bombs.
“We studied the blast injury and it’s very complicated. The primary injury is from blast wave. Secondary blast injury comes from projectiles. It’s a complicated method of injury,” the surgeon said. “This war is pretty unique in that we are dealing with these injuries.”
Back at his civilian job in Rochester, N.Y., most head injuries were caused by gunshots or motor vehicle accidents. Even the wounds of America’s previous wars were from gunshots.
“Some soldiers take repetitive hits from blasts,” Huang said.
Studying repeated head injuries
He’s been researching the long-term effects of repeated head injury.
“Especially for soldiers who didn’t suffer a penetrating injury in the blast and didn’t need the surgery, but what happened after they came back home? They get five exposures to explosions, but they are a hundred feet away — so what happened to them? That’s my primary interest now.”
Looking at animal studies, Huang said repeated blast injury leaves them more irritated and more fearless.
“The animal will jump off the platform without fear,” he said. “So we are just trying to quantify that to see if it’s linked to an increase in suicide risk in soldiers or NFL players.”
Down the road, researchers could study whether repeated head injuries have a link to dementia, memory and cognition loss, or depression.
More research funding
To truly get an understanding of this type of head injury, Huang said there needs to be more funding for research.
Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show 1.7 million people sustain a traumatic brain injury each year. Of those injured, 57,000 die. By comparison, about 39,000 die annually from breast cancer, and about 50,000 people test positive for HIV each year.
“They have 100 times (more funding) .... from the National Institute of Health. It’s more advocacy,” Huang said. “That’s one thing we really in the long term need to change — to get more funding for TBI and the long-term effects from those blast injuries.”
Awareness through pop culture, such as professional sports, could help, he said.
In the coming years, Dr. Glen Couchman, chief medical officer for Baylor Scott & White, said he believes Huang’s knowledge and experience will be an asset to the community.
“Dr. Huang is an incredibly talented clinician and surgeon and we are very pleased to have him as a part of the Baylor Scott & White family,” Couchman said. “His experience serving in the military and helping some of the critically wounded soldiers during his deployment in Iraq has helped develop his strong background in patient-care.”