‘Distinguished Alumnus’ Honored by College of Medicine

College of Medicine 1985 alumnus John Holcomb, M.D., receives the Distinguished Alumnus Award from UAMS Chancellor Dan Rahn, M.D.

Holcomb (right) in Somalia in 1993, an episode that would shape his career in trauma care.

Holcomb shares memories from medical school as well as some of his experiences in the military and trauma care with fellow alumni.

Sept. 4, 2013 | The UAMS College of Medicine presented its 2013 Dean’s Distinguished Alumnus Award to retired U.S. Army Col. John Holcomb, M.D., a 1985 graduate who earned wide acclaim during his 23-year career in the military for substantially advancing trauma care for those wounded in battle.

UAMS Chancellor Dan Rahn, M.D., presented the award to Holcomb during a reception marking the opening of the college’s annual Alumni Weekend in Little Rock on Aug. 23. Holcomb, who grew up in Fort Smith, also spoke to fellow graduates at a luncheon the next day.

The College of Medicine established the Distinguished Alumnus Award in 1973 to recognize graduates who have demonstrated exceptional achievement and contributions to medicine through patient care, research, health administration or other forms of leadership.

Holcomb has been a leader in trauma surgery and related research at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston since his 2008 retirement from the Army. He serves as director of the Center for Translational Injury Research, chief of the Division of Acute Care Surgery, professor and vice chair of the Department of Surgery, and as the Jack H. Mayfield, M.D., Chair in Surgery.

“UAMS is a great institution, and I am extraordinarily proud to be here,” Holcomb said after receiving the award.

During his presentation the next day, Holcomb noted some of his seminal experiences during medical school, including seeing some of his first patients with attending physicians such as James Suen, M.D., who is now chairman of the Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, and Kent Westbrook, M.D., who oversaw development of many of UAMS’ cancer programs and continues to serve as a distinguished professor in the Department of Surgery.

“I felt remarkably well prepared for my internship,” said Holcomb, who went on to complete his general surgery internship and residency at William Beaumont Army Medical Center in El Paso, Texas. “I still use lessons and concepts that I learned at UAMS when I teach medical students today.”

In 1993 Holcomb was deployed with Special Operations to Somalia, where he cared for soldiers who were severely wounded on the battlefield of Mogadishu in the violent Black Hawk Down episode. The experience had a profound impact, spurring his decision to dedicate his career to trauma surgery and research aimed at improving outcomes for the injured.

In 1997 Holcomb became chief of the Military Trauma Research Branch of the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research (USAIR). In 2001, he completed a surgical critical care fellowship at the University of Texas at Houston while serving as the trauma advisor to the U.S. Special Operations Command. From 2002 until his retirement from the military in 2008, he served as both commander of USAIR and trauma consultant to the Army Surgeon General.

Because of Holcomb’s leadership, the military began issuing life-saving tourniquets to every member of the U.S. Armed Forces deployed in combat zones. He initiated the use of hemostatic dressings in place of gauze dressings to stem bleeding more effectively, introduced major advances in resuscitation, and greatly improved how the military transports wounded service personnel to the most appropriate field hospital.

Holcomb’s achievements and dedication to service men and women earned him numerous military honors including the Honorary Medal for Combat Surgical Care, the Army’s Development Achievement Award for Leadership and Excellence and the U.S. Special Forces Command Medal. In 2008, the American Heart Association presented Holcomb with its Lifetime Achievement Award in Trauma Resuscitation Science.

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