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12.02.2010

Surgeon James J. Hutson Jr. Repairs Shattered Bones, and Lives

Ask Miami-Dade police officer Jody Wright about trauma surgeon James J. Hutson Jr., M.D., associate professor of orthopaedics at the Miller School, and she’ll answer without hesitation: “He is phenomenal. He is fantastic.”

Hutson, whose solid family ties to Miami medicine date to his great-grandfather James M. Jackson, M.D., for whom Jackson Memorial Hospital was named, isn’t comfortable with such high praise. That’s despite the countless hours he spent over two and a half years and nearly two dozen surgeries helping Wright walk again by repairing the massive hole an armed motorist blasted in her lower leg with an AK-47 after being stopped for driving erratically. Her partner was killed and two other officers injured in the attack that shocked the region and drew national headlines.

On that day in September 2007, after Hutson’s Ryder Trauma Center colleagues worked non-stop to patch Wright up, the officer was destined to become Hutson’s patient. Since the blast had shattered so much bone, she had the choice of consenting to amputation, or trying to save her leg through Hutson’s specialty—the painstaking Ilizarov method.

Wright chose to save her leg. Through the treatment method pioneered by Soviet orthopaedic surgeon Gavril Abramovich Ilizarov, Hutson would cut her healthy leg bone in half just above the ankle and, over many surgeries, push the upper half to fill the cavity left by the assault rifle blast. The surgically severed bone would slowly regrow, fusing together and leaving Wright with a new, complete leg bone.

It took nearly three years of wearing an external ring apparatus, known as a circular fixator, to keep her leg bone in place and enduring sometimes painful and plodding rehabilitation, but this September Wright returned to active duty and is once again protecting citizens.

“I wanted to come back to the job that I love so I didn’t give up and put my best foot forward,” Wright said. “Dr. Hutson was right there beside me.”

As is typical, Dr. Hutson credits his patient.

“Because of her hard work and physical therapy – she probably spent thousands of hours in physical therapy – she was able to recover good function and strength in her leg,” Hutson said. “She was someone who was brought into the trauma center with a near amputation, so it was very rewarding for me to be able to work with her over time, through a period that was very trying and hopefully on to a normal life. That’s a big part of a job that I love very much.”

Though Hutson’s office is at University of Miami Hospital, where he also sees patients, it’s at Jackson, the hospital named for his great-grandfather, Miami’s first resident physician, where the complex trauma cases come in.

“As a traumatologist, I know the patients I see are often going to have severely injured bodies and limbs with torn and ripped muscles, wide open wounds and missing bone,” he said. “The pride in my work comes from the slow process of converting an injury that was jeopardizing an extremity into one they can work, play and live with.”

Hutson, who has undergraduate and medical degrees from the University of Florida, says he has always been “good with my hands” so surgery seemed like a natural fit. By choosing that specialty, he was also following the footsteps of his grandfather, a surgeon and former chief of staff, and an uncle, also a surgeon, at the hospital named for the family patriarch.

“The art of repairing and building things always appealed to me,” said Hutson, who spends his leisure time working on cars or in his home wood shop building everything from a china cabinet to a dining set.

“Orthopaedics is truly a technical craft and a lot of the skills are similar to using tools in recreation and other professions,” he continued. “In watching my residents over the years, I’ve noticed those who played sports or used their hands to make models and so on start off with an advantage. They know how to hold tools and how to cut; others have to learn about the tools from scratch.”

Hutson’s other love is his family. He grows animated when he talks about his wife, who he met at UF, and his three sons, none of whom followed the family tradition. One son was, however, enrolled in pre-med until a film elective stole his heart; he now works in the industry in New York. His other sons are an architect and a Marine, who’s getting ready for a tour of duty in Afghanistan.

Interestingly, Hutson notes, the U.S. Department of Defense recently selected UM/Jackson as one of 24 sites to participate in the national Major Extremity Trauma Research Consortium, METRC. The five-year multicenter study will investigate the treatment and outcomes of major orthopaedic injuries, similar to those inflicted on many soldiers wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq. Part of the study will compare the outcomes achieved with a circulator fixator, as was used in Wright’s case, to other methods.

“Our selection by the military to be a part of this study further validates the complexity of the cases we work with, and the skill level available here to treat those patients,” Hutson said. “What we have built here as a team is truly special. And that’s fitting because the patients who trust us with so much are special people. I’m happy to be here.”

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