Pilot flies surgeon who saved his legs

Wednesday, January 16, 2002

by Kelly Everitt

Mountain Home News

Walking to the flight line last week was a special event for Lt. Col. Brad Robert, acting commander of the 391st Fighter Squadron.

Beside him was the man who made it special, Dr. Mark Meier, an orthopedic surgeon responsible for Robert simply being able to walk, let alone fly.

Robert wanted to show his appreciation. Meier would be flying in his jet that day.

It was a little over a year ago, the night before Thanksgiving, when Robert's life changed dramatically. On his way to visit his father in Burns, Ore., Robert and his wife stopped to help at the scene of a nasty accident 36 miles from his destination, on a lonely Oregon road. It was the simple act of a good Samaritan that would turn tragic quickly.

While assisting the victims of the first accident, an 18-wheel semi crashed into the original wreck. Robert turned to dive into the roadside ditch -- but didn't make it. The truck, nine wheels of it, ran over him, crushing both of his legs.

His wife put tourneqets on his horribly mangled legs as they waited for nearly an hour for an ambulance to arrive. An off-duty nurse driving the same road stopped to help, but Robert, an Air Force Academy graduate who lived to fly, knew even then that his flying days were over.

He had more than 20 major fractures in his legs and the soft tissue, muscles, cartilage and skin, had been horribly mangled.

At first, doctors in Burns seriously considered amputating both legs, but after two surgeries there they had managed to avoid that.

Then came the hard part. "The Air Force was trying to get me home (to Boise), but was having trouble finding a doctor who would accept Tri-Care," Robert said of the often-criticized military health-care program. Although Robert thinks Tri-Care is a reasonably good program "there's a lot of problems in the Boise area finding doctors who will accept it."

Then, Dr. Meier came onto the scene. He not only accepted Robert's case, he told the pilot early on the goal was to get him back flying.

"I thought my flying days were over. When he told me he'd like to get me flying again in a year, my first question was, 'at Mountain Home?' "

Meier began a series of surgeries on Robert over the next several months, rebuilding the shattered limbs a piece at a time. Robert began an intensive regimin of painful rehabilitation. "At first, I had absolutely no movement in my legs," Robert said. But slowly, he began to get better. "I worked exeptionally hard on rehabilitation, just to be able to walk. I still can't run well," he said, while praising all those who helped with his rehabilitation, and his family for all their support.

He had 12 months to get approved for flying status or the Air Force would ground him -- permanently. "There's nothing better than flying," he said. "As a kid, I always wanted to do it. I love what I do," flying the world's finest fighter-bomber, the F-15E Strike Eagle.

Eleven painful months after he came within an inch of losing both legs, Robert got the green light from the flight surgeon and climbed back into the cockpit.

Grateful to everyone who had helped, Meier's skills as a surgeon and the personal relationship the two developed over the long road to recovery, put him on the top of Robert's list of "good guys."

Robert had tried to express his gratitude several times, asking if there was anything he could do for the doctor. Meier had just laughed it off, joking, "you can take me up in your plane some day." But he knew that was impossible. In general, it is.

Rides in military jets are few and far between. A lengthy list of criteria are required, most involving some means of promoting the Air Force mission. Even "incentive" rides to reward non-flying military personnel are relatively rare. Robert put in the request anyway, but he didn't anticipate success.

Then something happened.

A Boise television station ran a report on some of the problems with Tri-Care, including the lack of doctors willing to accept patients who qualified for the program. Meier's willingness to accept Robert's case looked like a way to combat some negative publicity. The ride was approved.

Thursday, Meier showed up on the flight line. Wearing a grin that reminded one of a little boy who'd just inherited a candy store, he tried to stay calm, but admitted he was excited about the chance to fly with Robert.

He was fitted with a G-suit and helmet, then underwent an exam by the flight surgeon and began several hours of pre-flight briefings and basic training on what to do if something were to go wrong with the aircraft and he had to bail out. The base Life Support unit walked him through a cockpit trainer and then a parachute simulator. Meier listened intently, concentrating on what he was told while a dozen journalists and camera crews hovered about.

Then the long walk out to the flight line -- the pilot who shouldn't even have had any legs to stand on and the doctor who had made the walk possible, shoulder to shoulder, heading out to the big grey jet.

Meier climbed into the jet and strapped himself into the rear seat where the weapons officer normally sits. Robert climbed into the cockpit and the canopy came down. After all the preflight checks were completed, the engines came to life, blue-orange flame pouring from the rear of the plane, and it taxied out onto the runway. A brief stop for flight clearance and the jet headed down the runway, then lifted off, climbing almost straight up into the grey, overcast skies.

For Meier, the next hour, pulling Gs with Robert in the skies over southern Idaho, it would be one of the most memorable moments of his life. For Robert, it was a chance to say thank you.

The two have become friends and Meier may very well be on hand for one more key point in Robert's recovery. Jan. 25, the man who nearly lost his legs will be running one of the sections of the Olympic Flame Torch Run in Boise.

"I may not run very fast, but I'll make it," Robert said. The quarter mile will be a victory lap for him, dedicated to Meier and all those who helped him walk and fly again.

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