updated 11/4/2003 4:41:08 PM ET 2003-11-04T21:41:08

Maj. Mike Kissenberth is scheduled to perform surgery in two hours, just enough time to see a dozen clinic patients before he heads upstairs to scrub. “Who’s first?” the Army surgeon asks two soldiers sitting on examining tables in adjoining rooms. The one with an injured rotator cuff speaks up. “Oh, right,” Kissenberth says. “You’re my 9 o’clock.”

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IT’S PAST 10 a.m. When he’s done with these appointments, he returns to an inbox piled with new charts and X-rays.

Hard work and long hours are nothing new at Army hospitals, but the patient overload from the thousands of soldiers who have returned from the Iraq war has suddenly thrust doctors here into the middle of a national emergency.

Backlog of patients
Fort Stewart’s 70-bed hospital is struggling with a backlog of patients, including more than 600 sick and injured reservists. Some have grumbled publicly of waiting weeks, even months, for treatment while living in barracks without air conditioning or indoor toilets.

The complaints prompted visits last month from the Army’s surgeon general and its top civilian, acting Army Secretary Les Brownlee, who promised more staff for the hospital and an inquiry into conditions at other posts.

“You’d like to say it’s a nice, controlled panic,” said Kissenberth, the chief of orthopedics and surgery at Fort Stewart’s Winn Army Community Hospital.

With one of his surgeons still deployed, Kissenberth has cleared his schedule of retirees and military spouses — except for emergencies — to concentrate on soldiers. With troops routinely waiting six weeks to be operated on, he’s in surgery five days a week — about double the norm.

In response to the reservists’ complaints, the Army is assigning more doctors, nurses and technicians to Winn hospital to reduce the backlog. Recently, 50 of the more than 600 reservists have transferred to Eisenhower Army Medical Center in Augusta, the largest Army hospital in the Southeast.

Grueling workload
Even with help on the way, Winn hospital commander Col. Joe Barthel doesn’t expect the pace to slacken any time soon — not with National Guard and Army Reserve troops continuing to mobilize through Fort Stewart and the base’s 3rd Infantry training for future deployments.

“The easy answer is, ’as long as the global war on terrorism is ongoing,” Barthel said in speculating how long the crunch will last.

The hospital itself has responded to the workload by extending the hours of its MRI operations, adding a fourth operating room and hiring a civilian orthopedist to fill in for one who’s in the Middle East.

Its 1,050 staff members have been treating the largest contingent of Army troops to return from Iraq so far. Since Fort Stewart’s 3rd Infantry came home at summer’s end with 16,500 troops, outpatient visits have soared 33 percent — from 33,000 a month to 44,000.

“The staff and doctors are doing the best they can with the resources provided,” says 1st Lt. Jonathan Pruden, who has had 11 leg surgeries since his Humvee struck an anti-tank mine outside Baghdad.

The Army, which has 4,187 doctors staffing 28 hospitals and 144 clinics nationwide, prides itself on delivering medical care comparable to the private sector.

Recruiters point out that young doctors can have their medical school paid for by the Army, don’t have to worry about overhead or malpractice insurance and can advance more rapidly than at private hospitals.

But the work load can be grueling — especially these days. Lt. Col. Glen Tomkins, an internist and director of Tuttle Army Health Clinic at nearby Hunter Army Airfield, has noticed an increase in soldiers with ailments from sprained ankles to skin rashes.

He chalks it up to troops seeking the comforts of civilization after the hardships of war.

“One amenity is to go eat at a nice restaurant,” Tomkins said. “Another is to see your doctor to get that skin problem taken care of.”

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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