The Re-education of Dr. Holt
He was a Harvard-trained anesthesiologist who'd been a championship swimmer at West Point. But after his Humvee hit a bomb, the Bethesda man faced his toughest challenge-relearning how to walk, talk and do his job.
By February 2010, 13 months after he was injured, Holt was ready to leave Mologne House. Dr. John Capacchione, one of the many physicians involved in his care, attributes Holt’s astonishing rate of recovery to the fact that “there is not a negative bone in this guy’s body.”
That spring, Holt went before a medical board and was recertified as an anesthesiologist. Soon after, he was appointed vice chair of the anesthesiology department at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Services, behind the Walter Reed campus in Bethesda.
He was devastated to learn he would not be certified for overseas deployment.
“This place has enough anesthesiologists,” he told the medical board. “These kids are putting their lives on the line. I’m supposed to tell them, ‘Well, if you can get back to my safe little area, I’ll help you’? No, my job is to go far forward. I’m not the smartest anesthesiologist, but I can outrun anyone in the field.”
The medical board remained firm. A second traumatic brain or spinal injury could be catastrophic.
From Mologne House, the couple moved less than a mile from Walter Reed and decided to start a family after six years of marriage. Soon, however, caretaking roles were reversed when Nashwa was put on bed rest for 15 weeks.
“Eric was still recovering, but would rush home from work every day,” she says. “His cooking was terrible, but he took really good care of me.”
Although he still needed extra sleep, like others who suffer a traumatic brain injury, Holt was learning new things at work, taking on all the household and caregiving tasks and “running on vapor.” More challenges arrived when their twins were born three months premature in October 2011. The boys spent two months in a neonatal intensive care unit before coming home.
Despite some lingering TBI and the challenges of raising twins, Holt was determined to make his presence felt on the battlefield, even if he couldn’t be there. His personal mission: Do whatever possible to help improve combat techniques and training procedures.
Now 43, he is in the middle of a one-year pain management fellowship at Walter Reed. When he graduates in June, he’ll be board certified as a pain management physician, which he hopes will enable him to introduce new techniques into battlefield situations. He also has three patents pending for medical devices he believes will help wounded warriors.
His excitement is palpable when he talks about techniques for blocking nerves to kill pain, and how medics and doctors can be trained to use them on the battlefield.
“You don’t need fancy equipment. Say someone has a leg blown off. You go in with a needle to the sciatic and femoral nerve and numb it,” Holt says. “That guy’s still awake, but feeling no pain. Medics can do it. It’s not wizardry, it’s anatomy.”
Quick pain relief, he notes, reduces the incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and of phantom pain in missing limbs. Addressing that problem is critical; every month the Department of Veterans Affairs adds to its rolls about 4,000 new patients suffering from PTSD.
Holt is equally confident that medics can be trained to more successfully keep open the airways of injured troops who are struggling to breathe. One of his patents is for a modified, “night-vision-capable” laryngoscope, which goes down a patient’s throat to open airways. Holt’s modification employs infrared light, allowing illumination in “lights out” combat situations.
Four years after the explosion that nearly ended his life, Holt and his wife live in a comfortable home with their 17-month-old twin sons and a cocker spaniel rescued from a shelter. Nashwa, now 39, recently began working as an anesthesiologist at Washington Adventist Hospital in Takoma Park. She laughs when told they appear to be an idyllic family.
“Eric just keeps saying that as long as we’re not under concentrated, sustained fire, we shouldn’t worry too much,” she says.
Holt says he doesn’t want to be considered a poster boy; he and other wounded warriors face a lifetime of challenges.
“It’s still a daily struggle for both of us,” Nashwa says. “It’s not the same as it was; he’s not the same. It’s still hard to reason with him on a totally logical level. It’s added a new dimension of difficulty to our lives.”
Challenges remain, but the couple’s determination and optimism are reflected in the names they chose for their sons.
“Will was named for the strength of will Eric demonstrated to come back to life,” Nashwa says. “Luke means light and represents our hope for the future, for the light at the end of the tunnel.
“Both boys have the middle name Eric,” she adds, “because I don’t believe there is anyone better in this world for them to emulate.”
A former travel writer for The Washington Post, Cindy Loose lives in Bethesda.