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VA Researchers Who Served: Dr. Roy Bloebaum

VA Salt Lake City Health Care System

Febraury 28, 2018

Dr. Roy Bloebaum is the recently retired director of the Bone and Joint Research Laboratory at the VA Salt Lake City Health Care System. He still volunteers his services there.
Dr. Roy Bloebaum is the recently retired director of the Bone and Joint Research Laboratory at the VA Salt Lake City Health Care System. He still volunteers his services there.

Dr. Roy Bloebaum is the recently retired director of the Bone and Joint Research Laboratory at the VA Salt Lake City Health Care System. He still volunteers his services there.

Dr. Roy Bloebaum, an Air Force Veteran, is the former director of the Bone and Joint Research Laboratory at the VA Salt Lake City Health Care System. He has devoted more than 30 years of his career to orthopedic research, with a focus on developing implants for Veterans with arthritis and amputations. The implants for amputees are the product of a patented technology that allows Veterans to be more active and free of the inconvenience of socket suspension systems. In 2014, he received the prestigious Paul B. Magnuson Award for driving research toward the development of a new generation of prosthetics. Bloebaum served as a pararescueman, the most elite unit in the Air Force, and received the Distinguished Flying Cross, among other medals, for his service during the Vietnam War. He will always believe in the pararescue motto: “So that others may live.” He recently retired from VA but has returned to volunteer on amputee care research.

What drove you to military service?

As an inexperienced 18-year old, I saw there were few opportunities for growth and employment. I chose the U.S. Air Force because my namesake, Roy Smith, my father’s first cousin and best friend, was killed on a bombing run in World War II.

What inspired your research career?

In 1968, as a parescueman, I was assigned to cover Apollo 7 out of Perth, Western Australia, in case an emergency landing was required in the Indian Ocean. If so, we would parachute in and place the flotation collar on the capsule and wait for a friendly ship. During a day off, a young lady I met took me to visit the University of Western Australia in Perth. I thought the campus was amazing and chose to go there as a Rotary International Scholar, which is a goodwill international program, for a doctorate in human biology and anatomy. I eventually began a fellowship in the department of orthopedics at the University of California, Los Angeles, and got involved in orthopedic research.

Did you have mentors who inspired you in life, the military, or your research career?

No one progresses or becomes successful without mentors to inspire them. Although they grew up poor, my parents were rock-solid honest, hardworking, and loving. As far as my military service, every pararescueman (PJ) I served with was inspirational. You do not make it through PJ training and not be inspired by those who are willing to die “so that others may live.” In college, my two main mentors were Sister Virginia Brinks in anatomy and physiology and Sister Mary Pierre Ellebrock, a theologian. One fed the mind, the other the soul. In my research career, I’ve been fortunate to have worked with and mentor 27 medical students, 49 pre-med students, and 27 graduate students. They inspired me daily. I’ve also worked with great Ph.D. collaborators and amazing surgeon mentors who helped direct my research to clinical needs.

When and where did you serve in the military? Describe your military experience.

My one year of PJ training involved Army jump school, Navy Seal scuba training, Air Force survival school, Air Force medic training, Army Ranger mountain rescue training, and Air Force pararescue school, where the training was aimed at rescue work anywhere in the world. Following graduation, I was assigned to go to Guam. On Guam, the main goal was to assure coverage of fighter pilots transporting jets from Hawaii to the Philippines and South Vietnam. If complications occurred and the aircrew had to eject, we would parachute into the Pacific and tend their injuries until a friendly ship picked us up. We were also responsible for Apollo space craft recovery. During cyclones, we also supported medical care on Pacific islands in the region. Pararescuemen were sometimes needed to parachute and care for sick personnel on ships if their medics were also sick. After Guam, I volunteered for Vietnam. In Vietnam, the pararescuemen were part of an elaborate team of helicopters, fighter planes, HC-130s, and spotter aircraft. If the pilots were injured or killed—no one was left behind—the PJ would be lowered from the helicopter to help or recover the pilot and other crew members. Pilot and aircrew recovery could occur in Vietnam, Laos, or Cambodia. Several PJs made the ultimate sacrifice.

What kinds of research are you involved in? How does it potentially impact Veterans?

I became a VA researcher when I was hired as an associate professor in the department of orthopedics at the University of Utah. The fact that the job position was Veteran-centered with VA salary support was a big bonus and became my full-time appointment. My research has spanned more than 30 years in biomaterials, tissue compatibility of materials, implant attachment to the skeleton, bone healing and remodeling, histology, and periprosthetic infection. This work has enabled my research team to develop osseointegrated implants (OI) for direct bone attachment for Veterans with amputations. OI technology has been a major life-changing technology that allows Veterans to be more active and liberated from the pain and inconvenience of socket suspension systems because the bone is loaded directly. This will hopefully make suspension sockets obsolete for many traumatized Veterans, warfighters, and patients with amputations. The technology has already improved the quality of life for Veterans and amputees.

Did your military experience inspire you to pursue a career as a VA researcher? Is your military experience connected in some way to your VA research?

My military experience is directly related to my VA research. As a pararescueman in the 1960s, I was taught to be very cautious about using a tourniquet. It was certain, if applied, the warfighter would lose a limb. We weren’t close to forward surgical centers in Vietnam. It could take hours to get the patient to a surgical site, guaranteeing limb loss if the tourniquet was applied. [A tourniquet can stop the loss of blood through a vein or artery, but cutting off blood flow may also lead to loss of limb.] Today, every warfighter carries two tourniquets. There are many more surgical sites that can be reached within the critical hour. This allows most injured warfighters to be on the operating room table very soon after being wounded and has led to a 98 percent save rate, the highest in military history. It has also helped Veterans with severe and multiple limb loss.

How do you feel about the possibility of making life better for Veterans through your research?

I met with the first eight Veterans with above-knee amputations to receive OI technology. Being able to listen and discuss their experience in war and life, and sharing their vocabulary as a combat Veteran, was life changing for me, the Veterans, and their families.

Does being a Veteran give you a greater emotional tie to the work you’re doing or more insight into Veterans’ needs?

Being a Vietnam Veteran has enriched my experience as a research scientist. I have a clear understanding of the struggle fellow Veterans and their families experience with health care challenges. My training as a paramedic exposed me to the Army, Navy, Marine, and Air Force training cultures. I can assure you they are different. I used to joke that I was quadralingual. This has helped to enrich me, as well as the Veteran patient.

Based on your life experiences to date, what do you believe are the keys to success? What motivational tips would you share?

My keys to success have been family—my parents, wife, children, and relatives—and my military experience, great mentors, and basic philosophies, which go like this: Whatever you volunteer for, be the best at it. That includes excelling at work. Also, never do the minimum and always try to exceed expectations. Education is the stairway to success. I owe a lot to the GI bill because we were a poor family while I was growing up. Also, keep your mind open to the world. I got my doctorate at the prestigious University of Western Australia. Plus, if it’s easy, you’re in the wrong job. You’re in charge of your research destiny. Finally, understand the concept of social capital. Networking is essential for growth.

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