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VCU Health and the U.S. Navy’s Fleet Surgical Teams collaborate on transformative military-civilian trauma training and knowledge exchange

VCU Medical Center, in collaboration with the U.S. Navy’s Fleet Surgical Teams, is actively advancing trauma training and knowledge exchange between VCU Health and the military.

Man pointing in the other direction outside of the emergency room entrance from the street while talking to a man in a formal Navy suit. Michel Aboutanos, M.D., medical director of VCU Medical Center’s Level I trauma center and Trauma Systems Network, meets with Rear Admiral Benjamin Nicholson, Commander of Expeditionary of Strike Group TWO, as part of an ongoing partnership between VCU Health and the U.S. Navy's Fleet Surgical Teams. (VCU Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

By Danielle Pierce

Central to VCU Health's comprehensive programs and its Level I trauma center is the unwavering commitment to zero preventable deaths, both domestically and on the battlefield. Several collaborations with the United States military encompass education opportunities, training programs, clinical skills sustainment, as well as military and trauma-related research projects.

One moment to demonstrate this commitment came late last year when VCU Medical Center answered the call to join forces with the U.S. Navy’s Fleet Surgical Teams (FSTs) to provide trauma training for military members across multiple disciplines. The program is part of VCU Health’s ongoing efforts to support the Military-Civilian Partnership (MCP) and the MISSION Zero Act of 2019.
“The knowledge shared between VCU Health and its military partners will reverberate throughout our health system, influencing quality improvement initiatives and educational missions for team members, students, residents and fellows,” said Marlon Levy, M.D., interim senior vice president for VCU Health Sciences and interim CEO of VCU Health System.
As the only academic medical center in the region, VCU Medical Center serves as a teaching hospital – preparing the next generation of health care workers to use innovative approaches to improve patient outcomes. The medical center is the only comprehensive Level I trauma center in Virginia, verified to provide adult, pediatric and burn trauma care.

And within this teaching environment – dedicated to providing high-quality care for the most complex of trauma patients – VCU Health continues to show its ongoing commitment to military members through various MCP initiatives.
"Military-civilian partnerships enrich us all,” said Michael Roussos, president of VCU Medical Center. “The exchange of knowledge, perspectives and invaluable experiences is what this collaboration is all about. Together, we forge a powerful alliance, each benefiting and bolstering the other in service of the greater purpose of advancing patient care."


Nurse walking in a hallway leading a tour for about a dozen people.

Rear Admiral Benjamin Nicholson, Commander of Expeditionary Strike Group TWO along with medical leadership from Commander, Naval Surface Force Atlantic and the Navy’s Atlantic-based Fleet Surgical Teams received a tour of VCU Medical Center’s Level I trauma center in late January. (VCU Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

From vision to reality: Embedding Fleet Surgical Teams

In January, VCU Medical Center welcomed two FSTs for hands-on training, real time experience and knowledge exchange. FSTs are specialized units designed to provide critical medical support during deployments, particularly in expeditionary settings. Tasked with delivering damage control surgery and a range of medical interventions, these teams play a pivotal role in ensuring the health and well-being of U.S. sailors and marines.

The FSTs training at VCU Health are 15-person teams of general surgeons, hospitalists, nurses, CRNAs, technicians and corpsmen. Each team partnered with clinicians and departments across the medical center to gain experience in high volume and high acuity trauma care.

“Any experience which allows our Navy medical professionals to collaborate with their civilian counterparts is value-added for everyone,” said Rear Admiral Benjamin Nicholson, Commander of Expeditionary of Strike Group TWO. “The data proves it; working alongside the incredibly talented and experienced trauma teams at VCU Health makes our FSTs more capable and more confident in carrying out their vital missions. Together we are working toward a common, achievable, and highly-worthy goal: zero preventable deaths on the battlefield, and at home.”
Rear Admiral Nicholson, along with medical leadership from Commander, Naval Surface Force Atlantic at Naval Station Norfolk and the Navy’s Atlantic-based FSTs toured VCU Medical Center’s Level I trauma center in late January. During their visit, the group met with VCU Health leaders to discuss the partnership and how to build on the momentum of this particular MCP initiative.
“The goal of the initiative is to foster continuous knowledge exchange and skill improvement between the Navy’s expeditionary medical teams and VCU Health staff,” said Omar Rokayak, D.O., trauma surgeon and medical director of VCU Military-Civilian Partnerships. “The end result is the enhancement of health care delivery to the communities we both collectively serve.”


Group stands around a large table listening to a man speak.
Michel Aboutanos, M.D., medical director of VCU Medical Center’s Level I trauma center, speaks with medical leadership of the U.S. Navy during a recent tour of VCU Medical Center’s Level I trauma center. (VCU Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Answering the call: VCU Health’s agility in response to support military

The discussion between VCU Health and FSTs began in August 2023. However, due to shifting timelines and priorities, the need for a faster launch of the initiative surfaced. In December 2023, Captain Justin Lafreniere, a physician, Officer-in-Charge of Fleet Surgical Team TWO, and Group Surgeon for Expeditionary Strike Group TWO, reached out to Rokayak and Michel Aboutanos, M.D., chief of Acute Care Surgical Services in the Department of Surgery and medical director of VCU Medical Center’s Level I trauma center and Trauma Systems Network, to see if it would be possible to begin training for the first FST in January.

“Their team pulled this off in about 4 weeks, over the holiday period, and now here we are planning our next steps towards a more sustainable partnership between VCU Health and all four of Expeditionary Strike Group TWO's Fleet Surgical Teams,” Captain Lafreniere said. “The experience has not only prepared these sailors to support the next amphibious ready group deployment, but puts us another step closer to having Navy expeditionary medical teams exchanging ideas and bedside expertise with VCU Health staff, with the ultimate goal of improving our care of the communities we serve, on a much more permanent, and long-term basis.”

Aboutanos, Rokayak and their teams worked swiftly; garnering support from VCU Health leadership and various departments throughout the health system to ensure that proper certifications and protocols were met ahead of the group’s arrival.

“We are deeply committed to our military-civilian partnerships,” Aboutanos said. “The success of this collaboration is evident in the completion of the rotations with FST 4 and FST 2, showcasing the rapid and effective implementation of the program by VCU Health team members. This could not have happened without Beth Broering, the trauma and burn program manager’s tireless efforts and the unparalleled commitment of all of our faculty, staff and VCU Health leadership.”

VCU Health's institutional leadership, coupled with a dedicated military-civilian partnership team, has been instrumental in the success of these initiatives. The support from departmental leadership, staff members and liaisons underscores the health system's commitment to bridging the gap between military and civilian health care expertise.


Group stands together in a line for a photo.

Marlon Levy, M.D., interim CEO of VCU Health, and Michel Aboutanos, M.D., medical director of VCU Medical Center’s Level I trauma center, received a placard from the U.S. Navy in recognition of VCU Health’s partnership to improve trauma care both abroad and at home. (VCU Enterprise Marketing and Communications)