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UPMC to help military build better soldiers

| Wednesday, May 16, 2007

FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. -- Sgt. Eurace Burnett describes his feelings about jumping from a helicopter with one word.

"Fun. That sums it all up -- fun," said Burnett, 32, an air assault soldier with the Army's 101st Airborne Division.

But after two years of practice jumps, Burnett, of Jamaica, no longer gets to feel that exhilaration. Repeated incorrect landings -- Burnett thinks he tended to twist his legs on impact -- damaged his left knee. He'll eventually need surgery, and isn't permitted to jump.

He doesn't want other soldiers to experience the heartbreak of having their life's work bring them pain. On Tuesday, he participated in the opening of a University of Pittsburgh Medical Center research lab here, in southwestern Kentucky, to help doctors develop training programs to prevent soldiers from suffering similar injuries.

The program -- called the Injury Prevention and Performance Enhancement Laboratory -- is the newest project in a partnership that UPMC is fostering with the Department of Defense.

If the government has a health-related problem, UPMC wants to provide the solution.

"We want to be the government's source for innovation," said Scott Gilstrap, a former U.S. Air Force officer and president of UPMC's Innovative Medical and Information Technologies Center, a nonprofit subsidiary.

The center was created in April to give UPMC an edge over other health care systems. Because the Defense Department requires its grantees to have a high level of security to protect soldiers' information, having a smaller subsidiary compete for and manage those grants makes it easier to provide that security.

The basic premise is to partner UPMC researchers and doctors with military programs to fix a problem -- such as the ankle, back and knee injuries among soldiers -- that make up a third of Veterans Administration costs. The Defense Department pays for the projects, and UPMC provides the expertise.

UPMC can use data gleaned from testing and developing programs for soldiers to help patients in its hospitals, while the military gets an academic perspective on and solutions to medical problems facing troops.

The partnership started in 2001 when UPMC was developing its electronic health records system, and sought information from the Air Force, Gilstrap said. UPMC assisted the Air Force in creating a "telemedicine" program that allows Air Force doctors in one part of the world to view X-rays and diagnose soldiers located elsewhere.

UPMC has obtained more than $40 million from the Defense Department for a dozen programs, ranging from diabetes research to the development of neuroprosthetic devices that use nanotechnology to make prosthetic limbs more responsive to an amputee's desired movement.

Their latest ventures -- the $2.75 million injury prevention lab at Fort Campbell and a similar, $2.1 million lab at the Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base in Virginia opening this summer -- are changing how soldiers train.

"These soldiers are trained for endurance. They have to carry heavy body armor and equipment, up to 60 pounds, for 16 hours every day," said Takashi Nagai, an exercise physiologist who runs tests on the soldiers. "But at the same time, they have to be agile and move quickly. We're finding that they need more high-intensity training."

Nagai has tested 30 soldiers so far and plans to test almost 1,000 over the next two years. He wants to prepare them for deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan in September.

Over five hours, each soldier is tested by five different machines -- the same type that UPMC's Center for Sports Medicine uses to determine the physical strengths and weaknesses of Pittsburgh Steelers.

Essentially, the Army is looking at its soldiers as "tactical athletes," said Lt. Col. Rusty Rowe, division surgeon for the 101st Airborne.

"Our soldiers want to be better, stronger, faster, able to endure more -- much like a professional athlete," Rowe said. "This helps them to do that."

Strapped into the Isokinetic Strength Testing Device on Tuesday, Burnett twisted from side to side against the machine's growing resistance. A computer monitor displayed a graph with peaks and valleys showing when Burnett used the most muscle power.

When he was done, doctors told Burnett that the muscles in his left side are stronger, and suggested exercises he could do to strengthen his right side.

"I think it's a good program, as far as building up soldiers for combat," Burnett said.

On a table in the back of the center, several dozen blue masks soon will be used during drills that simulate combat activity.

The masks cover the soldiers' mouths and nose and record their oxygen intake and carbon dioxide output. This tells doctors how physically fit they are and whether they're using their lungs to full capacity.

Sgt. Francisco Cruz, of Puerto Rico, has been with the 101st Airborne Division for three months, and expects to deploy to Afghanistan in September. On Tuesday, doctors attached more than a dozen reflectors to his legs to test his landing form.

As he jumped from a two-foot high platform, six high-speed video cameras used infrared light to catch the movement of the reflectors. The information was fed to a computer that created a three-dimensional model of Cruz' legs.

Doctors told him his landing form looked good, but asked Cruz -- who has had surgery on both knees -- to come back later so they could run more tests.

Cruz said the technology will make him better able to serve the United States by using his body to its maximum potential.

"It's about helping others," Cruz said. "I like this stuff. I guess I was born to be a soldier."

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