James E. Bates ’86; Major: Neuroscience.
“If you tell me I can’t do something, I have to do it,” says Capt. James E. Bates ’86 evenly, without any bluster. An orthopedic surgeon, Naval reservist and former officer-in-charge of the Miranda Trauma Center at Forward Operating Base Apache in Afghanistan, where he helped treat hundreds of wounded soldiers, Bates says this pattern of resolve goes way back. To third grade, actually.
That’s when he was diagnosed with Perthes disease, a childhood
disorder in which the blood supply to a hip joint is temporarily disrupted, potentially killing off bone cells and causing permanent impairment. For two years, he had to wear a big stainless-steel and leather leg brace “like the one young Forrest Gump had in the movie,” says Bates.
He couldn’t run around with the other kids. He was teased. He was called a “cripple.”
“I had this sort of deep-seated feeling that ‘when I get my brace off, I’m going to do anything and everything,’” he recalls. He got lucky: his body healed itself, and he didn’t need a hip replacement. Still, his orthopedist predicted he probably wouldn’t be able to play sports. Red flag to a bull: Bates plunged into soccer, baseball, skiing and sailing.
Today, Bates specializes in major joint replacement (hips, knees, shoulders). He works at the cutting edge—so to speak—of robotic instrumentation systems that can make precision cuts into bone, like “glorified carpentry,” he says. In 2012 he received a patent: U.S. 8,313,495, for a Needle Holder and Suture Cutter Surgical Instrument, his own invention, which he uses in the operating room.
Over the years, Bates’ career has zigzagged between the civilian, the military and the charitable. He has volunteered as a surgeon on medical outreach programs in Guatemala and been in private practice in San Diego for two decades. He completed basic flight training so as to become a naval flight surgeon, and he took Navy diver training so as to treat Navy SEALs and submariners. And he has done two major deployments: Cambodia in 1992 and Afghanistan in 2013.
While stationed in Qalat, Bates read everything he could about Afghanistan, “going back to Alexander the Great,” he says. (Qalat means “fortress” in Persian/Pashto, Bates discovered, and from the base, he could see the 2,000-year-old stone fortress built by Alexander’s forces.)
He commanded a staff of 25 at Miranda Trauma Center, named for fallen Navy SEAL Denis Miranda. Together, these “sand docs” treated some 400 injured military personnel, many brought in with grievous wounds from improvised explosive devices, high-velocity arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades. When asked what he’s proudest of in his career, he says it was having this responsibility for a combat surgical team, and empowering them to do their best work, operating in the critical “golden hour” right after a soldier is wounded.
Bates credits two people at Amherst with setting him on his path: Professor of Psychology Lisa Raskin, his mentor and “number-one influence,” and a career adviser who broke the news that he likely didn’t have the grades to get into medical school. You know how that rolled, right? Now he had to go to medical school.
“Amherst did not give me all the information I need in life, but it did give me the ability to assimilate and process information,” Bates says. “I also gained humility at Amherst. I was an A-plus student in high school, and at Amherst I was a mediocre student.” Bates played lacrosse and rugby in college and today is a triathlete. Even so, he says, “there will always be people who are stronger, faster and smarter, but in college I learned that you can excel by learning how to think well, make good decisions and understand your limitations.”
These days, he’s back to his busy private practice, where he keeps his old leg brace in his office. It reminds him of the obstacles he’s moved past and the ones he has yet to face, undoubtedly, head-on.