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Letter to the Editor. Early decompressive craniectomy and limited tract debridement: a proven strategy?

Jonathan E. Martin

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Introduction. Military neurosurgery

Randy S. Bell, Chris J. Neal, and Randall McCafferty

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The changing landscape of military medical malpractice: from the Feres Doctrine to present

Callum D. Dewar, Jason H. Boulter, Brian P. Curry, Dana M. Bowers, and Randy S. Bell

Medical malpractice suits within the military have historically been limited by the Feres Doctrine, a legal precedent arising from a Supreme Court decision in 1950, which stated that active-duty personnel cannot bring suit for malpractice against either the United States government or military healthcare providers. This precedent has increasingly become a focus of discussion and reform as multiple cases claiming malpractice have been dismissed. Recently, however, the National Defense Authorization Act of 2020 initiated the first change to this precedent by creating an administrative body with the sole purpose of evaluating and settling claims of medical malpractice within the military’s $50 billion healthcare system. This article seeks to present the legal history related to military malpractice and the Feres Doctrine as well as discuss the potential future implications that may arise as the Feres Doctrine is modified for the first time in 70 years.

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The evolution of the treatment of traumatic cerebrovascular injury during wartime

A review

Randy S. Bell, Robert D. Ecker, Meryl A. Severson III, John E. Wanebo, Benjamin Crandall, and Rocco A. Armonda

The approach to traumatic craniocervical vascular injury has evolved significantly in recent years. Conflicts prior to Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom were characterized by minimal intervention in the setting of severe penetrating head injury, in large part due to limited far-forward resource availability. Consequently, sequelae of penetrating head injury like traumatic aneurysm formation remained poorly characterized with a paucity of pathophysiological descriptions. The current conflicts have seen dramatic improvements with respect to the management of severe penetrating and closed head injuries. As a result of the rapid field resuscitation and early cranial decompression, patients are surviving longer, which has led to diagnosis and treatment of entities that had previously gone undiagnosed. Therefore, in this paper the authors' purpose is to review their experience with severe traumatic brain injury complicated by injury to the craniocervical vasculature. Historical approaches will be reviewed, and the importance of modern endovascular techniques will be emphasized.

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Cranioplasty complications following wartime decompressive craniectomy

Frederick L. Stephens, Correy M. Mossop, Randy S. Bell, Teodoro Tigno Jr., Michael K. Rosner, Anand Kumar, Leon E. Moores, and Rocco A. Armonda


In support of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom-Afghanistan (OEF-A), military neurosurgeons in the combat theater are faced with the daunting task of stabilizing patients in such a way as to prevent irreversible neurological injury from cerebral edema while simultaneously allowing for prolonged transport stateside (5000–7000 miles). It is in this setting that decompressive craniectomy has become a mainstay of far-forward neurosurgical management of traumatic brain injury (TBI).

As such, institutional experience with cranioplasty at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center (WRAMC) and the National Naval Medical Center (NNMC) has expanded concomitantly. Battlefield blast explosions create cavitary injury zones that often extend beyond the border of the exposed surface wound, and this situation has created unique reconstruction challenges not often seen in civilian TBI. The loss of both soft-tissue and skull base support along with the need for cranial vault reconstruction requires a multidisciplinary approach involving neurosurgery, plastics, oral-maxillofacial surgery, and ophthalmology. With this situation in mind, the authors of this paper endeavored to review the cranial reconstruction complications encountered in these combat-related injuries.


A retrospective database review was conducted for all soldiers injured in OIF and OEF-A who had undergone decompressive craniectomy with subsequent cranioplasty between April 2002 and October 2008 at the WRAMC and NNMC. During this time, both facilities received a total of 408 OIF/OEF-A patients with severe head injuries; 188 of these patients underwent decompressive craniectomies in the theater before transfer to the US. Criteria for inclusion in this study consisted of either a closed or a penetrating head injury sustained in combat operations, resulting in the performance of a decompressive craniectomy and subsequent cranioplasty at either the WRAMC or NNMC. Excluded from the study were patients for whom primary demographic data could not be verified. Demographic data, indications for craniectomy, as well as preoperative, intraoperative, and postoperative parameters following cranioplasty, were recorded. Perioperative and postoperative complications were also recorded.


One hundred eight patients (male/female ratio 107:1) met the inclusion criteria for this study, 93 with a penetrating head injury and 15 with a closed head injury. Explosive blast injury was the predominant mechanism of injury, occurring in 72 patients (67%). The average time that elapsed between injury and cranioplasty was 190 days (range 7–546 days). An overall complication rate of 24% was identified. The prevalence of perioperative infection (12%), seizure (7.4%), and extraaxial hematoma formation (7.4%) was noted. Twelve patients (11%) required prosthetic removal because of either extraaxial hematoma formation or infection. Eight of the 13 cases of infection involved cranioplasties performed between 90 and 270 days from the date of injury (p = 0.06).


This study represents the largest to date in which cranioplasty and its complications have been evaluated in a trauma population that underwent decompressive craniectomy. The overall complication rate of 24% is consistent with rates reported in the literature (16–34%); however, the perioperative infection rate of 12% is higher than the rates reported in other studies. This difference is likely related to aspects of the initial injury pattern—such as skull base injury, orbitofacial fractures, sinus injuries, persistent fluid collection, and CSF leakage—which can predispose these patients to infection.

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Gauging the feasibility of cost-sharing and medical student interest groups to reduce interview costs

Bryan A. Lieber, Taylor A. Wilson, Randy S. Bell, William W. Ashley Jr., Daniel L. Barrow, and Stacey Quintero Wolfe

Indirect costs of the interview tour can be prohibitive. The authors sought to assess the desire of interviewees to mitigate these costs through ideas such as sharing hotel rooms and transportation, willingness to stay with local students, and the preferred modality to coordinate this collaboration. A survey link was posted on the Uncle Harvey website and the Facebook profile page of fourth-year medical students from 6 different medical schools shortly after the 2014 match day. There were a total of 156 respondents to the survey. The majority of the respondents were postinterview medical students (65.4%), but preinterview medical students (28.2%) and current residents (6.4%) also responded to the survey. Most respondents were pursuing a field other than neurosurgery (75.0%) and expressed a desire to share a hotel room and/or transportation (77.4%) as well as stay in the dorm room of a medical student at the program in which they are interviewing (70.0%). Students going into neurosurgery were significantly more likely to be interested in sharing hotel/transportation (89.2% neurosurgery vs 72.8% nonneurosurgery; p = 0.040) and in staying in the dorm room of a local student when on interviews (85.0% neurosurgery vs 57.1% nonneurosurgery; p = 0.040) than those going into other specialties. Among postinterview students, communication was preferred to be by private, email identification–only chat room. Given neurosurgery resident candidates' interest in collaborating to reduce interview costs, consideration should be given to creating a system that could allow students to coordinate cost sharing between interviewees. Moreover, interviewees should be connected to local students from neurosurgery interest groups as a resource.

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Two-year mortality and functional outcomes in combat-related penetrating brain injury: battlefield through rehabilitation

M. Benjamin Larkin, Erin K. M. Graves, Jason H. Boulter, Nicholas S. Szuflita, R. Michael Meyer, Michael E. Porambo, John J. Delaney, and Randy S. Bell


There are limited data concerning the long-term functional outcomes of patients with penetrating brain injury. Reports from civilian cohorts are small because of the high reported mortality rates (as high as 90%). Data from military populations suggest a better prognosis for penetrating brain injury, but previous reports are hampered by analyses that exclude the point of injury. The purpose of this study was to provide a description of the long-term functional outcomes of those who sustain a combat-related penetrating brain injury (from the initial point of injury to 24 months afterward).


This study is a retrospective review of cases of penetrating brain injury in patients who presented to the Role 3 Multinational Medical Unit at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, from January 2010 to March 2013. The primary outcome of interest was Glasgow Outcome Scale (GOS) score at 6, 12, and 24 months from date of injury.


A total of 908 cases required neurosurgical consultation during the study period, and 80 of these cases involved US service members with penetrating brain injury. The mean admission Glasgow Coma Scale (GCS) score was 8.5 (SD 5.56), and the mean admission Injury Severity Score (ISS) was 26.6 (SD 10.2). The GOS score for the cohort trended toward improvement at each time point (3.6 at 6 months, 3.96 at 24 months, p > 0.05). In subgroup analysis, admission GCS score ≤ 5, gunshot wound as the injury mechanism, admission ISS ≥ 26, and brain herniation on admission CT head were all associated with worse GOS scores at all time points. Excluding those who died, functional improvement occurred regardless of admission GCS score (p < 0.05). The overall mortality rate for the cohort was 21%.


Good functional outcomes were achieved in this population of severe penetrating brain injury in those who survived their initial resuscitation. The mortality rate was lower than observed in civilian cohorts.

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Early decompressive craniectomy for severe penetrating and closed head injury during wartime

Randy S. Bell, Corey M. Mossop, Michael S. Dirks, Frederick L. Stephens, Lisa Mulligan, Robert Ecker, Christopher J. Neal, Anand Kumar, Teodoro Tigno, and Rocco A. Armonda


Decompressive craniectomy has defined this era of damage-control wartime neurosurgery. Injuries that in previous conflicts were treated in an expectant manner are now aggressively decompressed at the far-forward Combat Support Hospital and transferred to Walter Reed Army Medical Center (WRAMC) and National Naval Medical Center (NNMC) in Bethesda for definitive care. The purpose of this paper is to examine the baseline characteristics of those injured warriors who received decompressive craniectomies. The importance of this procedure will be emphasized and guidance provided to current and future neurosurgeons deployed in theater.


The authors retrospectively searched a database for all soldiers injured in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom between April 2003 and October 2008 at WRAMC and NNMC. Criteria for inclusion in this study included either a closed or penetrating head injury suffered during combat operations in either Iraq or Afghanistan with subsequent neurosurgical evaluation at NNMC or WRAMC. Exclusion criteria included all cases in which primary demographic data could not be verified. Primary outcome data included the type and mechanism of injury, Glasgow Coma Scale (GCS) score and injury severity score (ISS) at admission, and Glasgow Outcome Scale (GOS) score at discharge, 6 months, and 1–2 years.


Four hundred eight patients presented with head injury during the study period. In this population, a total of 188 decompressive craniectomies were performed (154 for penetrating head injury, 22 for closed head injury, and 12 for unknown injury mechanism). Patients who underwent decompressive craniectomies in the combat theater had significantly lower initial GCS scores (7.7 ± 4.2 vs 10.8 ± 4.0, p < 0.05) and higher ISSs (32.5 ± 9.4 vs 26.8 ± 11.8, p < 0.05) than those who did not. When comparing the GOS scores at hospital discharge, 6 months, and 1–2 years after discharge, those receiving decompressive craniectomies had significantly lower scores (3.0 ± 0.9 vs 3.7 ± 0.9, 3.5 ± 1.2 vs 4.0 ± 1.0, and 3.7 ± 1.2 vs 4.4 ± 0.9, respectively) than those who did not undergo decompressive craniectomies. That said, intragroup analysis indicated consistent improvement for those with craniectomy with time, allowing them, on average, to participate in and improve from rehabilitation (p < 0.05). Overall, 83% of those for whom follow-up data are available achieved a 1-year GOS score of greater than 3.


This study of the provision of early decompressive craniectomy in a military population that sustained severe penetrating and closed head injuries represents one of the largest to date in both the civilian and military literature. The findings suggest that patients who undergo decompressive craniectomy had worse injuries than those receiving craniotomy and, while not achieving the same outcomes as those with a lesser injury, did improve with time. The authors recommend hemicraniectomy for damage control to protect patients from the effects of brain swelling during the long overseas transport to their definitive care, and it should be conducted with foresight concerning future complications and reconstructive surgical procedures.