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Wounded Juneau Marine on the mend in Md. hospital

Follow-up surgeries successful for Staff Sgt. Thomas McRae

Posted: February 12, 2012 - 1:11am

The father of the Juneau Marine who was injured in Afghanistan last month says his son has made incredible strides toward recovery, and his condition continues to improve.

“He’s made tremendous progress,” Tim Ryan, father of Staff Sgt. Thomas Howard McRae, told the Empire in a phone interview Saturday.

McRae, 29, completed the last of his scheduled surgeries this past week at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.

On Tuesday, doctors operated on the back of his right eye socket, which was severely damaged in the roadside blast.

“They used part of his skull to repair it,” Ryan said.

Both of his legs and his left arm were amputated in the blast. Ryan says those amputation wounds are now “healed up.”

He successfully completed a myriad of follow-up surgeries in the past several weeks and most recently has been treated for a fractured hip that required placement of four screws, a broken collar bone and a fractured thigh bone and thumb.

McRae, a U.S. Marine Corps Explosive Ordnance Disposal technician born and raised in Juneau, was investigating an explosive threat on a Marine base in the Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan when an improvised explosive device was detonated under him on Jan. 16.

He sustained injuries to his brain and both eyes.

He lost all vision in his right eye and will receive a prosthetic, his father said. But doctors are hoping to restore the vision in his left eye.

“He says he can see shapes, but it’s been really hard without the proper communication with him to assess his vision,” Ryan said, noting that doctors think his “optic nerve will kick in.”

The brain surgery was one of the first operations he had at Walter Reed. Doctors removed a small piece of his right frontal lobe — “about the size of the tip of your pinky,” McRae’s sister Jessica Ryan told the Empire earlier.

McRae was responsive after the surgery and continues to be, his father said, and doctors continue to monitor his brain activity with CAT scans.

“He’s having conversations,” Ryan said, noting he is on a low dose of morphine. “He is medicated for pain, but it’s not anywhere near the drugs they were using on him before.”

McRae’s condition had upgraded and he was allowed to leave the critical care unit (CCU) of the hospital. He returned to the CCU after Tuesday’s surgeries as he recovered.

“We’re hoping that tomorrow we’ll be out of CCU and back on the inpatient floor, what they call Level Four,” Ryan said.

Now that the surgeries are complete, Ryan says the next medical goal is for McRae to transfer to a military medical hospital in Richmond, Va., called Richmond Polytrauma Rehabilitation Center. The center specializes in intensive rehabilitative care for veterans with severe injuries to more than one organ system, prosthetics and traumatic brain injury (TBI).

“He’ll be working on the physical therapy, but more important he’ll have the specialist in TBI,” Ryan said. “There’s no time frame for it yet. It’s probably directly according to how well he responds to the next couple weeks.”

Though the surgeries are complete, one of the biggest potential dangers for McRae is the risk of getting an infection, Ryan said.

“There’s a 25 percent chance of getting an infection, and it really delays the healing process,” Ryan said.

The Marines flew Tim and his wife Carolee Ryan, McRae’s mother, to Bethesda from Juneau to be with their son. They are staying at a nearby military lodge.

They say they’ve had a wide range of support from the Marines themselves, who are providing them with transportation and housing, to organizations dedicated to helping veterans, such as the Wounded Warriors Project and the Red Cross and Semper Fidelis nonprofits.

As he watches over his son, Ryan says he feels enormous pride for him.

“You know, he knew what he was doing, and those EOD technicians in Afghanistan are saving so many American lives it’s not even funny,” he said. “They’re the ones that go in to make it safe for our troops.”

Many of his fellow EOD technicians have visited him in the hospital.

“They’re friends that have worked with him. They all went through the same school,” Ryan said. “They’re a really tight bunch.”

McRae’s daughter, Aaiden, 3 1/2, could be visiting him in the hospital next week for the time since he deployed, Ryan said.

Just eight days after the blast when McRae was on a ventilator and couldn’t speak, his sister Jessica told the Empire, “My mom was talking to him about his daughter and his heart beat accelerated like he got excited ... You can tell that Tom is fighting. You can feel it around him when you hold his hand. I am pretty sure his daughter has a lot to do with that.”

She added in that same email interview on Jan. 23, “The doctors say that Tom is doing extremely well. They say he is young and healthy and he is making very good improvements. ... The doctor also said that by the end of this week we should see things improve drastically.”

Family members said this was McRae’s second tour of duty in Afghanistan, and he served three tours of duty in Iraq. He was assigned to EOD Company, 2nd Marine Logistics Group (Forward), and deployed in October of 2011 from the Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina where he was stationed.

McRae enlisted in the Marines when he was 18 years old. He completed basic training at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, and received EOD training in Pensacola, Fla.

• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at emily.miller@juneauempire.com.

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