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Steward Health Care Salutes Our Veterans

November 10, 2020

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As we observe Veterans Day 2020, Steward Health Care salutes the more than 3,000 veterans who are a vital part of our health care system. We thank you for your service and honor your sacrifices. As a tribute, we share with gratitude a profile of U.S. Navy veteran, Dr. Leah Brown. Dr. Brown is a Steward Medical Group orthopedic surgeon on the medical staff of Tempe St. Luke’s Hospital in Arizona. Her service includes deployments in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. She is the recipient of nine military honors and awards, including the Bronze Star and the Navy Commendation Medal.

Dr Leah BrownAs the COVID-19 pandemic surged in Tempe, Arizona this summer, Dr. Leah Brown was reminded of her days serving with the U.S. Navy during deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

“One of the things that the military trains you on is how to be uncomfortable and deal with disaster, and cope with disaster and keep pushing through when it seems just overwhelming,” she said. “The explosion of COVID, that’s what it felt like to me…it really became about saving people’s lives from a virus.”

As health care teams worked to prioritize and manage care, Dr. Brown relied on her substantial experience in working to save lives in times of disaster. She spent seven months in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2006, and in 2012deployed to Tarin Kwot in southeast Afghanistan for a nine-month tour of duty as the Orthopedic Surgery Department Head. A desire to serve was a calling she recognized even as a child.

“I always felt I had a desire to serve in some capacity, whether that’s medicine, politics, or the military,” she said. “I wanted to be part of something bigger.”

A high-level athlete, Dr. Brown has always viewed teamwork as a privilege. She was a 14-time NCAA All-American, and a two-time NCAA National Gymnastics Champion at the University of Georgia where she earned a degree in genetics. She earned her medical degree at Ohio State University and The Cleveland Clinic Foundation, followed by a Surgery internship at the Naval Medical Center in San Diego, CA. She was commissioned in the U.S. Navy in 1999, right before she began medical school, and was recommissioned in 2003.

“The goals, the ideas, the principles are really what you are committed to,” she said of joining the military. “It really just seemed to match with who I am and what I am as a person.”

Dr Leah BrownDuring Dr. Brown’s mission to Iraq, she served as the Medical Aid Station Director for Combat Logistics Battalion-5. She lost two members of her medical team while there.

“It puts things in perspective for you and gives you a whole different perspective on life,” she said. “It changes you. That’s why I’m sure the connection amongst veterans is important because that’s where you can talk about those things and have people understand.”

She deployed to Afghanistan as part of a surgical team whose mission was to support the combined Special Operations Task Force SEAL Team-4, caring for troops who were injured on the battlefield.

“It was busy with constant, horrific trauma: high velocity gunshot sounds, too many amputations on too many extremities to count,” she said. “We call it ‘damage control’. Our purpose was to keep the service member alive to get them to the next step of care.”

Dr. Brown and her unit were also part of a humanitarian project in Afghanistan, establishing a mission to provide health care to women, work that was highly dangerous if discovered by the Taliban.

“Due to some cultural barriers, women weren’t really given the same medical care,” Dr. Brown said. They met with the local health ministry and later were the first unit to receive a female trauma patient because they could provide female total trauma care in a way that respected the local culture. They also secretly trained young women – many only teenagers – how to provide what medical care they could, mainly as Ob/Gyns and primary care providers to their villages.

“It was amazing. These were brave young women that wanted to stand up and take care of their people, knowing that it could cost them their lives,” said Dr. Brown. “It was humbling.”

Dr Leah BrownThat mission work was among the service for which she was awarded the Bronze Star. Her time in Afghanistan was also marked by significant loss, particularly the death by suicide of her unit’s commanding officer as well as the loss of the SEAL team’s medic.

“That deployment taught me about humanity in ways that I would have preferred not to have learned, but that will obviously stay with me for the rest of my life and how I view the world,” Dr. Brown said. Those lessons in humanity are now central to her physician-patient relationships, viewing all patients as a human being first, she said, and taking the time to make that connection with every patient.

Dr. Brown continues to serve as a U.S. Navy Reservist and spent the last two weeks on Reserve Duty. This Veterans Day, her thoughts will be centered on all who serve and sacrifice, as they are each year.

“I spend special time thinking about the people who were close to me, that worked under me that I lost, and all the friendships and relationships I made through the Navy through shared experience,” Dr. Brown said. “It’s a day to reflect and be grateful and maybe hopeful that the reasons that we served still ring true.”

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