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Battlefield Surgeon Takes on Sports Medicine at Hopkins

January 15, 2009
John Tis

John Tis, M.D.

Growing up in Ft. Lee, New Jersey, John Tis discovered some of his dreams watching John Wayne in “The Sands of Iwo Jima” and “Back to Bataan” on TV in his living room.

“I thought it was the greatest thing, and that everybody had to go to war and be a soldier for their country,” says Tis, today a pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Hopkins Children’s. “I just had that feeling.”

He enrolled in an ROTC program out of high school. Although it conflicted somewhat with his vision of himself, a’ la John Wayne, assaulting an enemy machine-gun nest, he also had an interest in medicine. Medical school at Georgetown and orthopaedics training at Walter Reed Army Medical Center eventually got him to war – not in the South Pacific but in Iraq. There he found himself treating unimaginable blast injuries from IEDs, or improvised explosive devices, as an orthopaedic trauma surgeon with the 86th Combat Support Hospital in Baghdad, the medical facility featured in HBO’s graphic documentary “Baghdad ER.” Like the doctors, medics and nurses with whom he worked to save limbs and lives, he felt needed in a way he hadn’t before.

“It’s not anything you wish on anybody but unfortunately it’s a reality of life,” says Tis of the wounds he faced. “There are a lot of people who need to be treated, both civilians and our soldiers, and they have a great need for orthopedics.”

Tis speaks proudly of the U.S. military’s 90 percent survival rate among battlefield casualties – the highest rate of war survivors in U.S. history – but says it felt good to return home and resume an orthopedics practice at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Military life can be regimented, he continues, but the flip side is an unprecedented amount of responsibility.

“The military is not for everybody, but it really gave me a great base to grow,” he explains. “You have to manage your whole practice without as much help as you find at a place like Johns Hopkins. That’s a very valuable experience.”

His interest in developing a sports-medicine practice led him to cut his ties with the Army, after 14 years of service. Last year, the former director of pediatric orthopedics at Walter Reed joined Hopkins, bringing not only his sports-injury expertise but his experience in hip arthroscopy, a minimally invasive approach to diagnosing and treating disorders like hip dysplasia.

In working exclusively with children, he couldn’t be happier.

“Children always bring a lot of fresh energy into the room,” he says. “No matter how bad their illness or deformity, they deal with it in the most positive light possible. From a selfish standpoint, they bring energy to me, which makes me feel very motivated to help them.”

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