Beloved trauma surgeon gave his life in Iraq
By Elaine Moran
The largest cathedral in Philadelphia was packed on Jan. 5, with people paying tribute to John P. Pryor ’88, MD
, who had died of wounds Christmas morning in Mosul, Iraq, while serving his second tour of duty as a combat medic for the U.S. Army Reserve. Philly police closed off streets so the long line of cars traveling to the funeral could stay together. Outside a firehouse, uniformed firefighters saluted Pryor’s passing body, recalling both his service on 9/11 at Ground Zero and his operating-room heroics as director of the trauma program at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.
Former patients, hospital staff, state officials, servicemen – most present shared the sentiments of Pryor’s comrade-in-arms, Leslie Rice, PhD, RN, who said, “The visceral pain I felt upon hearing about John’s death was only second to that of the pain I felt when my father died.”
“He had it all,” says Todd Kesselman ’88
, recalling Pryor’s infectious laugh, impromptu guitar sing-a-longs and road trips during their sophomore and junior years rooming together in Seneca Hall at Binghamton University. “[But] he felt he couldn’t sit here drinking a beer and eating a burger while our troops were dying in Iraq because there weren’t enough trauma surgeons over there.”
The twin themes of personal warmth and action-oriented service were interwoven in Pryor’s life. Pryor’s mentor at Penn, William Schwab, MD, says, “JP was a magical man, with boundless energy.” Kesselman describes Pryor as a “force of nature” who threw himself into studies and campus life with equal gusto. He notes that Pryor was certified in CPR by age 14, became a New York EMT at age 18 and joined Harpur’s Ferry Student Ambulance Service at Binghamton. Before Pryor’s first tour in Iraq, he studied Arabic so that he could put the Iraqi children he treated at ease.
In Abu Ghraib during 2006, Rice recalls Pryor risking safety to reach the injured, for which he was awarded several medals. Once when their unit was being mortared, Rice told Pryor to stay put. “About six minutes later, four of them showed up all out of breath,” she says. “John was leading them. … [He] said that they couldn’t wait knowing that there may be soldiers needing his help.”
Pryor brought the same zeal to his work stateside. After receiving his medical degree from SUNY-Buffalo in 1999, he was drawn to what he characterized as a domestic war zone, the inner city trauma centers filled with victims of gang wars so numerous that “it sometimes makes Baghdad seem like a quiet city in Iowa,” he said. In an essay published in August 2007 in the Washington Post, Pryor observed that in Iraq, he sometimes caught himself saying, “Just like another Friday night in West Philadelphia.”
His experience in both war zones was mutually reinforcing, Pryor told an NPR interviewer in 2007. “What we’ve learned of how to take care of people in Iraq, we’ve really learned on the streets of America taking care of civilian casualties over the last 20 or 30 years,” he said.
Just 42 when he died, with a wife and three children ages 4, 8 and 10, Pryor was blossoming as a teacher and mentor at the University of Pennsylvania and beyond. Interns and nursing students were drawn to his labs by his approachability and confidence. He presented several times at National Collegiate EMS Foundation conferences and was on the editorial board of JEMS, the medical journal for emergency medical healthcare professionals. In 2007, he spoke at Villanova University, at the invitation of ethics professor Mark Doorley, about service at the military hospital at Abu Ghraib, reflections he also penned in a June 2006 Philadelphia Inquirer essay. “He [had] amazing stories – the students, including many ROTC students, hung on [his] every word,” Doorley says.
These and other experiences fueled his resolve in treating hundreds of Philadelphia’s civilian victims as well as traumatically injured soldiers in Iraq. “Fifty or 60 times a year, I have to walk into that emergency room and tell somebody their son is dead,” Pryor said in an interview in 2007. “That’s the motivation for us to work harder.”