Grady gala honorees share a military connection

Dr. Kenneth L. Wilson was sent to Afghanistan to mend wounded soldiers. He ended up stitching cultures together. An Army Reservist, Wilson was a deputy clinical commander at the 344th Combat Support Hospital in Salerno, Afghanistan, having previously served in Kuwait and Iraq in past years.

During his time in Afghanistan, he tended to blast injuries, limb amputations and other injuries servicemen and women sustained in combat. He also tended to civilians in the area.

"Kids are curious. They will pick up blasting caps," he said. "We pretty much just saw everything."

He noticed that many area residents lacked proper shoes, and mentioned it to friends back home. Word spread.

"I told two friends and they told two friends and the next thing you know I was getting boxes of shoes from all over the United States," Wilson said. "It was just an act of trying to help someone. I didn’t realize it was going to catch on. Some people would send these frilly heels. There were not really very practical, but the women all wanted them."

Some residents were wary at first of the American doling out footwear.

"I would say, ‘the only way you get these shoes is to give me a smile,'" he recalled. That worked every time, and Wilson's simple acts of kindness helped bridge a cultural gulf. "There goes the image of the scary Muslim. We were all just having fun."

Wilson is one of four "Healthcare Heroes" being honored at the second annual White Coat Grady Gala. The black-tie dinner and awards ceremony will be held March 17 at the Georgia Aquarium and benefits the Grady Health Foundation.

Wilson sounded humbled to be among the honorees.

"To be honored for giving, for something so simple, I felt like there is a blessing on my life," he said, adding that the friendships he forged abroad stand in contrast to images of conflict. "I cannot help believe that when you do an operation on a poor person or a kid who would otherwise die, you’ve made a positive impact. I can’t imagine that didn’t help change a few minds."

Other gala honorees include prominent civic and business leader Tom D. Bell Jr., who is currently chairman of Mesa Capital Partners and serves on the boards of Grady Memorial Hospital Corporation, Regal Entertainment Group, the Metro Atlanta Chamber and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; Dr. Alfred W. Brann Jr., a professor of pediatrics and gynecology at Emory University who serves on the board of Emory's Center for Ethics; and Dr. Tamara R. Espinoza, an emergency medicine physician at Grady Memorial Hospital who is active in a traumatic brain injury research trial funded by the Department of Defense.

"We have millions of athletes and soldiers and just regular citizens who are suffering," Espinoza said. Part of her work has been aimed at finding ways for injured soldiers to be assessed more quickly after combat injuries. "We are learning a lot in our tools and our treatment. Protocols are light years ahead of where they were a decade ago."

In her scant free time Espinoza volunteers at Grady High School, discussing topics like alcohol abuse and bullying with the students.

"For me one of the things I love to do is work with kids of all ages," she said. "It’s refreshing in a way to listen to frank honesty sometimes without concern about political correctness. I feel like I get as much out of the sessions as they do. I feel it’s really important to be a role model in what ever capacity I can be."

Last year's gala raised more than $869,000 for the Grady Health Foundation. Patron sponsorships start at $1,250. For information or to register, call 404-489-1550, email asmith2@gmh.edu or see www.gradyhealthfoundation.org.