A 163d Physician Risked His Neck to Save a Leg—and Maybe a Life

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Gregory Solman
  • 163d Attack Wing Public Affairs

A Houston man is “walking around” today because Capt. William Sherman took nature’s dare.

August 19, 2017: Dr. William Sherman, a flight surgeon with the 163d Attack Wing, paced his corporate apartment in Houston, eyes fixed on the “bedlam” of Hurricane Harvey shaking the windows, with an agonizing decision to make. He’d just returned from a 24-hour surgical shift at nearby St. Joseph’s Hospital, having already fulfilled the first duty first-responders by evacuating his wife and children to the home of relatives in Georgia, leaving him to focus on the pending disaster, undistracted by worry about his own family’s safety.

Now it was time to consider the oaths he’d sworn as a physician and an officer in the California Air National Guard’s 163d Medical Group, a unit to which he’s remained loyal, despite living in Galveston and practicing at the University of Texas Medical Center there. Sherman wasn’t due back at St. Joseph’s until the following week, but the hurricane—on its way to tying Katrina as the most destructive tropical storm in U.S. history—taunted him with each 100 mile an hour howl: Now, or never.

Sherman chose “now.” He threw all his belongings on the top shelves of closets, unsure of what condition his apartment would be in when he returned. Sherman’s truck had 35 inch tires, so he methodically tried every route he could think of, only retreating at the sight of men wading through water up to the waist, houses flooded up to the fifth step of their stoops, and an abandoned police car, the water already enveloping the trunk. Finally, he fought his way to the elevated trolley tracks running through the Texas Medical Center campus, flooded by a mere two feet. After two hours, he’d made all of the six miles to the hospital, a trip typically traversed in a half hour, on a bad day.

Only one other physician had made it in. Normal staffing at St. Joseph’s on a weekday? 20 doctors. For the next five days, the two doctors handled every surgical emergency, every potential Code Red, Black and Blue, not to mention the critical care of those unfortunate patients stuck in the intensive care unit.

One 25-year old Houston man would need Sherman most. Harvey mercilessly swept his car into 16 feet of water. The interior flooded as the vehicle sunk. Gasping what he thought might be his last breath, he desperately kicked through the windshield and made it to the surface. But that cost him what Sherman would later clinically call an “open left bimalleolar ankle fracture.” The man courageously dragged himself a mile and a half through sewage-contaminated water until, likely on the verge of collapse, he flagged down a guy who drove him to the hospital in a garbage truck.

Yet another crisis loomed. By the time the man was literally dumped at St. Joseph’s, and examined by Sherman in the emergency room, he wasn’t a garden-variety shattered-ankle case. He was in danger of losing his whole leg, if not his life. At the very least, Sherman saw that if the man was ever going to use his ankle again, he’d need an orthopedic surgeon, and neither of the doctors manning every ward of the hospital had that specialty. So Sherman (trained in general, critical care, burn, and thoracic surgery) consulted with an orthopedic surgeon by phone, and a representative of the Stryker medical-device company that makes the “external fixator” needed to stabilize the ankle, managed to make it to St. Joseph’s to advise.

At that point, Sherman accepted what in combat would be called a “field promotion.” The hospital granted Sherman emergency permission to operate outside his specialty area, perform a procedure he’s never tried, a gutsy move. Throughout the night, Harvey surrounding the hospital, Sherman reduced the bone fragments, debrided the necrotic (dead) tissue, placed the complex “X-fix” external fixator device, then packed the wounds with antibiotic beads and applied a wound-vac (a negative-pressure dressing).

Three hours later—Sherman jokes that a “real” orthopedic surgeon could have done it in an hour—the man was out of danger, with a harrowing tale to tell.

 “Capt. Sherman is the quintessential physician and flight surgeon,” says Col. Martin Louie, commander of the 163d Medical Group. “This story shows his love of community, and it says a lot about his humanity.”

“And this story is a great example of leadership as a physician,” Louie continues, “because you can take dire circumstances, take the knowledge you learned previously, and somehow morph that into something useable—take unknowns make them into a known you can use.”

Stryker, which has a military-sales division, made Sherman’s success into a national campaign, eventually reuniting him with his patient. “He’s not back to being a star athlete,” Sherman says. “He’ll have some disability for the rest of his life. But he’s functioning, and rarely has pain. It was nice to see him walking around.”

A Houston man is “walking around” today because Hurricane Harvey dared Capt. William Sherman. And Harvey lost.