By: Abby Alten Schwartz

Photo by Katie Burke

Friday, October 6, 2023, was an unforgettable night for the trauma team at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center (PPMC) and other Penn Medicine staff. That evening, military and civilian trauma staff and dignitaries gathered to commemorate the U.S. Navy’s 248th birthday. They had no idea the event would turn into a joyful reunion.

The ball was coordinated under the leadership of Navy trauma surgeon Commander Jay A. Yelon, DO, FACS, FCCM, part of the military team embedded at PPMC under a groundbreaking, multi-year partnership between the University of Pennsylvania Health System (UPHS) and the U.S. Navy.

C. William Schwab, MD, PPMC trauma surgeon (and former Navy surgeon), explained that the Navy team approached him months earlier with a request. They wanted to thank Penn Medicine for the partnership, which Schwab described as “amazingly successful.” 

Yelon suggested planning a ball in recognition of the Navy’s upcoming birthday (October 13). Schwab agreed, noting that the joint celebration “sends a message, not just to the community, but to the rest of the nation, about just how well these [partnerships] can work.”

The partnership has provided the Navy team with an invaluable level of training and experience treating large numbers of critically injured patients, the type of traumas they might see in combat zones. Practicing high-volume, hands-on casualty care is essential for sustaining these skills between deployments and vital to our country’s military. The Penn Medicine civilian clinicians also benefited and learned new techniques from their Navy colleagues, especially for delivering life-saving care under austere and remote conditions. They all gained from working closely together as fully integrated trauma teams. 

An Indescribable Surprise 

John P. Pryor, MD, wearing scrubs and a surgical cap with the Penn shield in approximately 2008.
Maj. John P. Pryor, MD, was the former medical director of Trauma at Penn Medicine.

During the ball, the Navy team observed traditional protocols, including a flag presentation by a Color Guard made up of Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps (NROTC) midshipmen from local universities. That ceremony quickly escalated into a tearful reunion after a nurse from the trauma team spotted the name tag on one of the young men from the NROTC: Pryor. 

John Pryor, Jr., a sophomore at Temple University, had no idea when he volunteered for Color Guard duty that the event was a Navy ball for Penn trauma providers. His father, Maj. John P. Pryor, MD, had been the medical director of Penn’s trauma program when he was killed in action on Christmas night in 2008, while serving far-forward as an Army combat surgeon in Iraq.

After “displaying the colors” and packing up to leave, John stayed to listen to the speakers, who mentioned his dad’s name. He wasn’t sure he’d heard it correctly until Schwab took the podium. After the ceremony, John approached Schwab to say hello. It took a moment for Schwab to realize whose hand he was shaking.

“He said, ‘John!’ and then hugged me tight for 30 seconds. When he pulled away, he was crying,” Pryor, Jr. said.

A crowd formed around John and people asked to take pictures with him. For many in attendance, it was the first time they had seen “John John” since he was a small child. They were overjoyed to speak with the young man whose mannerisms were so similar to his father’s. 

“The rest of the night was indescribable—smiles, tears, emotion,” said Schwab.

A Military Medic’s Indelible Impact on Trauma Care 

John P. Pryor, MD, wearing camouflage scrubs and helmet
Pryor served as a U.S. Army combat surgeon and was killed in the line of duty in Iraq on Christmas Day in 2008.

Those who worked with Pryor knew him as a dedicated clinician, respected leader, and beloved friend. Schwab said Pryor’s reputation and the impact of his life extended well beyond the faculty who worked with him and the wider Penn Medicine community.

“I would say it’s part of our DNA and part of the trauma world in Philadelphia. When you mention John P. Pryor’s name throughout Pennsylvania, even at our national meetings, there is a reverence and silence. It’s not just for John, but for all of the fallen medics, nurses, and doctors over the centuries that have given their lives to care for other people in harm’s way,” Schwab said.

The Penn Trauma Program, founded by Schwab, has a proud history of training military trauma surgeons in its Trauma and Surgical Critical Care fellowship program and Pryor was part of that legacy. After completing his fellowship at Penn Medicine in 2001, Pryor remained as a faculty member in the Department of Surgery until his death in 2008. He joined the United States Army Reserve Medical Corps after learning of a critical need for trauma surgeons, and was serving his second tour of duty. It was Schwab who swore him into the military and read Pryor the oath of service.

Schwab and other members of the Penn Medicine staff have kept in touch with Pryor’s wife, Carmela Calvo, MD, and three children since his death. In May 2016, the family attended the dedication of the John Paul Pryor, MD, Shock Trauma and Resuscitation Unit in the Trauma Center at PPMC, along with leaders from Penn Medicine, the military and members of Congress. 

C. William Schwab III, MD, with John Pryor, Jr., and Niels D. Martin, MD, chief of the division of Traumatology, Surgical Critical Care and Emergency Surgery at Penn Medicine
Schwab with Pryor, Jr. and Niels D. Martin, MD, chief of the division of Traumatology, Surgical Critical Care and Emergency Surgery at Penn Medicine. Photo by Katie Burke.

“Danielle, Frankie and John were 10, 8, and 4 respectively, when their father died. It meant a lot to us all that John continued to be remembered and honored for this dedication and service,” Calvo said. John Jr., now 19, sadly has no memory of his dad. 

“The unplanned encounter at the Navy ball earlier this month with Dr. Schwab, the trauma surgeons, nurses, and many others too numerous to name, was an incredible experience. He enjoyed hearing and learning about his father as a physician, army reservist and friend,” Calvo said.

“People would come up to give me hugs and shake my hand. They would say how they knew my father and how great of a man he was. It was truly amazing to see the impact my father had on his coworkers and the Penn trauma community,” Pryor, Jr. said.

Schwab summed up the emotions of that evening, saying, “This was truly a miraculous and a divine moment, and it was absolutely engineered by his father.”

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