One day you'll see him in military uniform as he takes care of some of his administrative duties at the UNLV School of Medicine and University Medical Center before heading back to Nellis Air Force Base.
The next day, the specialist in pulmonary and critical care medicine is wearing scrubs, seeing patients, and teaching fellows at UMC, the medical school’s top training site.
So goes the life of Air Force Lt. Col. Jeremy Kilburn, a military medical professional from Air Force Research Laboratory’s 711th Human Performance Wing. He plays a key role in the Sustained Medical and Readiness Trained (SMART) program, which helps Air Force personnel maintain proficiency in their medical specialties.
“SMART provides an avenue to help doctors, nurses, and technicians maintain their clinical abilities for that sudden change from peacetime responsibilities to the urgency of a wartime deployment,” said Kilburn
The need for a SMART program is very real, he said, pointing out that the typical practice at an Air Force hospital is more along the lines of a community hospital, where trauma cases are uncommon. UMC, however, is Nevada’s only Level 1 Trauma Center, and often caring for patients with conditions similar to those suffered by soldiers in combat.
Col. John Bruun, a surgeon, is director of the overall local SMART program while Kilburn serves as medical director.
In 2013, Kilburn was sent overseas from Las Vegas, heading critical care teams transporting American soldiers from Afghanistan to an American military base in Germany. On 15 different occasions Kilburn, along with a critical care nurse and a respiratory therapist, kept soldiers who had lost limbs and were on ventilators alive during the eight-hour flight.
“I felt an awesome responsibility to those wounded warriors,” Kilburn said. None of the wounded died during the flights and most were later transported to Walter Reed Hospital in the nation’s capital.
Kilburn, who completed a fellowship in pulmonary and critical care at Washington University in St. Louis, is also program director for the UNLV School of Medicine Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine Fellowship that is held at UMC, the VA Southern Nevada Healthcare System, and the Mike O’Callaghan Federal Hospital at Nellis.
“We’re very fortunate that the integration of the military and civilian sectors has gone so smoothly in Southern Nevada,” he said.
Change of Course
Kilburn’s military career didn’t start out in the Air Force.
At 18, he joined the Marine Corps Reserve while a student at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Though both his mother and father were nurses, he didn’t decide on a career in medicine until his junior year, winning a medical school scholarship through the Air Force in 1999.
“I went from a non-commissioned officer in the Marines to a second lieutenant in the Air Force overnight,” he said.
After receiving his medical degree from St. Louis University, he completed a residency in internal medicine at Wright Patterson Air Force Base before finishing his fellowship in pulmonary and critical care medicine at Washington University.
In 2012, Kilburn made headlines when the Associated Press told the story of a hiker who saved the life of one of his rescuers.
Kilburn broke his leg when his dog nudged him after a long hike in Northern California and he landed awkwardly. By satellite radio, he contacted the California Highway Patrol, which sent two officers by helicopter. After the chopper landed next to a steep embankment, one of the officers was hit by the rotor blades as he started to climb up the embankment to reach Kilburn.
Hobbled, Kilburn fell and then crawled 50 yards on his broken leg to reach the officer. “All my military training told me I had to get to this guy now,” Kilburn told the AAP then. “The adrenaline just kicks in.”
The officer was unconscious and Kilburn noted that he was having trouble breathing. He inserted a tube in the back of the officer’s throat to help keep his airway open. He also directed another hiker to keep pressure on the officer’s skull. The officer was put on a stretcher, loaded into the helicopter, and taken to a hospital.
The CHP credited Kilburn with saving the life of the officer, who suffered a skull fracture.
Even today Kilburn feels guilty about what happened. “If I hadn’t broken my leg, that officer wouldn’t have gotten hurt,” he said.
Kilburn is thankful, however, that he had his medical training on that day in California.
“I’ve been trained to save lives and I’m glad I could,” he said. “That’s what I want to do with my life. And I want to teach others to do it as well. I think the fellows we’re teaching at UNLV are going to make a big difference in people’s lives.”