When Melanie Gideon, director of UCLA Operation Mend, first met retired Army Specialist Joseph (Joey) Paulk, he wore sunglasses to cover his face, a hood pulled over his head and his hands were buried in the pockets of his sweatshirt.
Injured in Afghanistan when three anti-tank mines hit his tactical vehicle, Paulk suffered 40 percent burns to his body and face, smoke inhalation, paralysis of his vocal cords and complete amputation of all 10 fingers.
Seven years after their first meeting, Gideon says Paulk is in a very different place — thanks to UCLA Operation Mend.
"After several surgeries, he completely transformed," says Gideon. "He is an inspiration. He's snowboarding, captain of a soccer team, on the bowling league and he just successfully completed a half-court shot at the Lakers training facility — with no fingers!"
Making a difference
UCLA Operation Mend was born out of an idea envisioned by Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center Board and Executive Committee member Ronald A. Katz after a visit to Brooke Army Medical Center (BAMC), a leading burn and rehabilitation center in San Antonio, Texas.
Started in 2007, the program provides surgical and medical treatment to qualifying service members and veterans at no cost. Any specialty care needed is provided, as long as it's related to combat or training. In addition, mental-health support is embedded into the program, an offering that was expanded upon when UCLA Operation Mend joined the Warrior Care Network.
"We look at the whole picture," says Gideon. "We work with them to figure out what's causing them the most pain or what is the most debilitating to their daily activities. Then, we look at them holistically and bring them out to UCLA to provide different types of care."
UCLA Operation Mend Medical Student Organization
Medical students interested in supporting UCLA Operation Mend can join the student group. Volunteers gain a greater understanding of injuries or issues associated with the military, and they are able to give back to the wounded warriors and their families in their own way, whether through community outreach, working in the office or shadowing a doctor.
Gideon encourages students to volunteer. She says the work is both inspiring and rewarding. "Veterans often come here for care over a series of years, and I watch them grow and blossom," Gideon says. "Their spirits are uplifted. It is hard to describe. They become more hopeful and get back to who they want to be."