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U.S. Army Lt. Col. Theodore J. Choma, M.D., '85: Searching for faster ways to heal spinal injuries

Choma has received a grant to research how to heal spine fractures using a titanium plate and screws.

U.S. Army Lt. Col. Theodore J. Choma, M.D., '85 is making advances as an educator and as a medical researcher.

As a teacher, Choma—the residency program director and chief of spine surgery at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Army Medical Center, in Fort Gordon, Ga.—educates and inspires future surgeons. As a researcher, he is working on a procedure that could heal spinal injuries faster and more naturally.

"As each year goes by, I think of myself more as an educator than an orthopedic surgeon," says Choma. The residency program that Choma is in charge of trains doctors into their specialties through a one-month, apprentice-like rotation, and a prestigious five-year orthopedic surgery program.

"The students start out as assistants and then graduate to more responsibility," Choma says. "Many students chose to do a rotation with us just to round out their medical training, especially those who wanted to help wounded soldiers during Operation Iraqi Freedom and other efforts. Once students see how involved we are with the soldiers, they realize how much they can do within these programs and decide to pursue this."

Much like the residents who realize their own potential through this training, Choma began his path into medicine through a multifaceted course of study at Lehigh: the arts engineering program, from which Choma graduated with both a B.A. in applied science and a B.S. in mechanical engineering.

"It's what made me want to come to Lehigh, because I could develop in the sciences and in the humanities. I could see the importance of science in expanding my abilities to help people," Choma says.

"One of the things that I've learned in the Army is that we are truly 'never off duty'; it's one of the Army mottos," adds Choma. "I think this is even more true in resident education, because they're always watching my example, and learning more than what's in the books."

The U.S. Army is a leader in medicine, and has a strong network of hospitals and resources throughout the country, including well-funded research programs. Choma has received a grant to research how to heal spine fractures using a titanium plate and screws just around the injured bones.

"Most spine fractures today get treated with an operation, but in the old days they would put patients in a large plaster bed for 16 months or in a body cast," Choma says. "We're testing our new method on the spines of animals, and hopefully our results will guide future surgeons."

Choma is also currently researching proteins that may help bones heal themselves in the event of an injury, and already holds two medical patents.

"Army research allows us to protect soldiers better than they've ever been protected before," Choma says.

For example, Kevlar body armor, which is what many U.S. soldiers stationed in Iraq wear, has led to an unprecedented number of soldiers surviving fires and explosions.

Surprisingly, the Iraq War has not led to an increased number of spine-injured patients for Choma. It has led to an increase in the number of extremity injuries he sees, however. He and his partners also treat many non-traumatic injuries in their hospital. "Soldiers have to be in top physical shape at all times," Choma says. "For example, many soldiers have to do a five-mile run before the sun comes up. They push their bodies like athletes, so it's possible to develop similar injuries, which we treat here."

For this reason, the effects of the Army's research and medical training can develop results that have the potential to reach many people. "Being a hierarchical institution, I have to get more approval to get a project done than at a major university," reflects Choma. "But as an Army physician, I have a unique role as an honest broker. I don't have the marketing concerns or pressures to publish too quickly."

Choma foresees the Army's resident programs expanding in the future, advancing new curricula and exams for students. He says, "As a surgeon and as a teacher, I hope to continue to train residents to be leaders in their specialties."

--Heidi Schwartz

Lehigh Alumni Bulletin Online
June 2006

Posted on Wednesday, July 05, 2006

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