When Donald Bittner, MD, an orthopedic surgeon with St. Jude Heritage Medical Group, helped to successfully reattach the arms of a 12-year-old boy, the surgery did not take place in an advanced surgical suite at St. Jude Medical Center — but in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
Both of the Afghani child’s limbs had been nearly severed in a thrashing machine accident and after a 10-hour surgery, the boy joined hundreds of American soldiers and civilians whose lives were saved through the efforts of Dr. Bittner, a Captain in the U.S. Navy Reserve. Yet, it was not for his surgical expertise that Dr. Bittner, one of Southern California’s most respected hand and wrist experts, recently received the military’s prestigious Legion of Merit Medal. Rather, the honor recognized his “extraordinary service and achievement” as a Navy commanding officer.
Presented at a formal military ceremony, the medal — one of the armed forces most important — cannot be earned through superior performance of normal duties, but only through exceptional accomplishment and contribution.
Dr. Bittner, who spends his weekends and vacations flying to naval posts across the country, received the honor for his innovation and success in improving the physical, mental and emotional readiness of the soldiers under his command. His leadership in addressing soldiers’ personal and emotional issues, as well as their physical wounds and health, propelled the 13 detachments under his command to extraordinary levels of readiness.
“It is a privilege to work with the remarkable men and women who sacrifice so much for our country — no other recognition was needed,” says Dr. Bittner who, in addition to his full-time practice at St. Jude Heritage Medical Group, serves as Deputy Chief of Staff, Navy Reserve, for the western United States. “It was an amazing and humbling moment to receive a medal for the privilege of helping them.”
Dr. Bittner’s years of service include a 12-month deployment to Afghanistan where he oversaw the organization and construction of dozens of battlefield hospital stations and clinics while also performing thousands of surgeries, often under difficult circumstances.
“It really is an honor to help our soldiers, who serve with such passion and integrity,” Dr. Bittner says, who recently co-authored a textbook on traumatic injuries that is used by military and civilian hospitals alike. “To play a role in helping ensure their physical and emotional health is a pleasure and joy.” Those who work with Dr. Bittner say neither the medal, nor his humility about earning it, are surprising. “He is extremely caring and very humble,” says Cynthia Leva, a medical assistant, who explains that the “extraordinary service” documented by the honor is evident in his everyday interactions with patients.
“You can see his desire to help and his commitment to making his patients’ lives better. Our soldiers are very lucky to have him.”
Dr. Bittner’s medical office is in Fullerton. For appointments, call (714) 626-8630.
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.