By Army Cpl. Clay Beyersdorfer
Regional Command South
KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan, March 19, 2014 – What he originally thought was “cool” has turned into a passion and a formidable career for Navy Cmdr. (Dr.) Chris Neal.
Neal, a neurosurgeon at the Role 3 NATO medical unit here, said he has “seen it all” when it comes to neurology.
“I thought [neuroscience] was cool, and after I got some experience with surgery and really being able to be hands-on, I have loved it, and haven’t looked back since,” he said.
It all started when Neal graduated from high school and was immediately accepted into medical school to study neurology at the University of Missouri-Columbia, before eventually being accepted into a program to become a Navy doctor. His home station is the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.
Working there, he said, he grew to love working with service members, especially in a joint-service environment.
“I enjoy the joint-service environment we have at Walter Reed,” he said, “because at the end of the day, medicine is medicine, no matter what service you are in. You’re stronger together.”
Before his current assignment in Afghanistan, Neal served a tour at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. It was there, Neal said, where he was faced with the most memorable moment in his career. A soldier came into the hospital with a gunshot wound to the head, requiring immediate surgery to survive.
“He was not doing well at all,” Neal said. “We had determined that we needed to take part of his skull off to let the brain swelling go down without causing damage to it, and with that always comes complications.”
Before continuing his story, Neal elaborated on the intricacy of brain surgery, emphasizing that it always is a difficult decision to go ahead and perform surgery.
“It is hard, because you are unsure how that person’s quality of life will be,” he said. “Will they be able to get up and walk around, and function like a normal person if I do this surgery? It is the hardest part of my job, because you want the best for them and to have the best life possible.”
Neal said he decided to go ahead with surgery for the wounded soldier, but the initial results were not looking good. “I had to tell the family, ‘He may very well die. The injury he sustained was a very serious one,’” he said.
The soldier continued to live, but Neal soon was headed back to Walter Reed, as his tour in Landstuhl was coming to an end. He was unaware of the soldier’s condition until his first day back at Walter Reed, where he saw a familiar name while reviewing the rehabilitation list.
“I said, ‘Wait a minute, I know this guy,’” Neal said. “So I went up to the rehab floor and who do I see -- the soldier and his family.” The soldier had pulled through and was gradually progressing.
“His mom came up and hugged me and cried,” Neal said. “But the soldier had no idea who I was; [he] didn’t recognize me. He didn’t know I was the one who performed surgery on him.”
It is memorable moments like that, Neal said, that keep him motivated and passionate about his job. “I guess that is why I do this stuff,” he said with a smile.
Neal went on to volunteer for a deployment to Afghanistan, where he is the top neurosurgeon at the Role 3 facility here, seeing every service member who comes in with head-related trauma or injury. On top of that, he has operated on local Afghans who have been taken to the hospital, including one man who was severely injured and “made us question ourselves whether or not he was going to make it,” Neal said.
Much like the soldier in Germany, the man gradually progressed.
“For a week or so, we really weren’t sure,” he said. “But then one day his eyes opened up, and he progressed enough to where his brother could come in and spend time with him.”
The man’s brother, with tears in his eyes, gave Neal something he said he will never forget. “He came up to me and said, ‘This is worth a thank you,’” Neal recalled.
Neal credits all of his experiences to his work ethic. “I am a workhorse. I take pride in being a hard worker,” he said. “And doing some of the things I have been able to do, this has all been worth it.”