A family physician recounts his time in a war zone
Joe McQuade, MD, has always been a runner. He was a steeplechaser in high school and ran cross country in college.
In 2005, running was the best way for Dr. McQuade to clear his head while treating wounded soldiers near the war-ravaged Iraqi city of Fallujah. Three years later, he was caring for detainees at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base.
Dr. McQuade is still running, though life is a bit quieter now. Today, this family doctor runs or bikes between his Jacksonville home and his Baptist Primary Care office on Collins Road.
But his time in Iraq is a constant reminder not to take medical care – in any setting – for granted.
“My predecessor, an ER doc who cared for thousands of Marines during the Battle of Fallujah, told me, ‘Don’t ever give up running here, no matter how busy you get,’ ” he recalled. “We tried to run every day there. We ran loops around the base and between the tank treads. We’d jog one and sprint the next.”
“Running provided “the necessary mental break we used to survive in this world of being on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Dr. McQuade recalled in his unpublished memoir, A family doctor in Iraq. “Seven months and five days on call in an austere environment will make us all reluctant to call work back home tedious again.”
A former staff physician at a Navy hospital in Naples, Italy, and the department head of a Navy primary care clinic in Groton, Conn., Dr. McQuade, a 1979 Naval Academy graduate, was the medical director of public health at Naval Hospital Jacksonville before he joined Baptist Primary Care in 2016. His wife, a Navy nurse, was about to give birth to their third child when he was deployed to Iraq 12 years ago.
He spent the next seven months as the triage officer at Fallujah Surgical, a makeshift trauma facility in central Iraq. The medical team there had just weathered the Battle of Fallujah, one of the bloodiest engagements of the war.
“They had seen enormous casualties. They told us we would never see any more wounded. But it got busy right away,” said Dr. McQuade, a retired Navy captain. In his time there, Fallujah Surgical treated nearly 3,000 patients, including more than 600 surgical emergencies.
Part of Dr. McQuade’s job was to keep “a perfect inventory” of every patient who came through the doors, whether it was a U.S. Marine or an enemy insurgent. “All you have to do is never lose track of who is in the building,” his predecessor advised.
Four months into his tour of duty, a suicide bomber drove his vehicle into a truckload of female Marines. Three of the Marines died and 10 others were wounded. Dr. McQuade called the incident one of the worst days of his tour at Fallujah Surgical.
Always be ready
A wall in Dr. McQuade’s office is plastered with colorful racing bibs commemorating his many running exploits, including distance events like the Marine Corps Marathon.
In his last week in Iraq, Dr. McQuade and a fellow physician ran a total of 75 miles.
Those chaotic days are never far from the modest family doctor’s mind. Writing his memoir, which reads like a diary from a war zone, was a cathartic experience.
“I learned a lot being on call 24 hours a day in the desert, and living essentially where I worked,” Dr. McQuade said. “The concept of being always ready for more and never knowing when more may come, remains in my nature now.”