by Lou Mancinelli
Where do you go for an outlet when your job in the past has brought you to places like the front lines of America’s wars in the Middle East, where your responsibility is to keep severely wounded soldiers alive? For Jenkintown resident and general surgeon Jack Sariego, M.D., it’s the stage. It’s singing opera and performing in local theater productions like “Sweeny Todd.”
Dr. Sariego, 54, was raised in the Torresdale section of Northeast Philly. He met his future wife, Lauren, while he was a senior at Lincoln High School, and he attended the University of Pennsylvania. After graduating from Penn in 1979, he attended Jefferson Medical College and completed an internship at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital (’84) and a residency and fellowship at the Medical College of Pennsylvania (’90), all in Philadelphia. At present, he serves as Professor of Surgery at Temple University Hospital.
Before returning to the east coast in 2006, when TU Chairman Dan Dempsey, M.D., “an old friend from [Dr. Sariego’s] residency days,” recruited him and inspired him to come home, Dr. Sariego was living on the Gulf Coast in Ocean Springs, Mississippi.
Ten years earlier, in 1996, when he and his wife needed a change from his work as a trauma surgeon and professor of surgery in and around Philadelphia, they moved the family and its two children, Andy and Jess (boy-and-girl twins, now 16), to a small town in rural Newton, MS., where Dr. Sariego “was the only surgeon within 100 miles.”
The family remained in central Mississippi for five years until, July, 2001, when a doctor he worked with years before recruited Dr. Sariego to Ocean Springs, MS to help set up a trauma practice. Dr. Sariego moved to the south of the state that summer, but when two passenger planes crashed into New York City’s World Trade Towers Sept. 11, 2001, his “whole ball game changed.”
About a year earlier, at age 42, he did something he “always wanted to do” and enlisted in the Air Force Reserves. When President George W. Bush publicly declared war on Iraq on September 14, 2001, Dr. Sariego knew he was going to be called to active service.
“Because the jobs [in the Air Force Reserve Medical Corps] I had were in high demand, I knew with the skills I had, I would get called.”
In February, 2002, Dr. Sariego was called into active duty and commissioned to serve as a Major in Afghanistan and Southwest Asia in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, and later in Europe during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Dr. Sariego was part of a three-person specialized team that transported soldiers suffering from the most severe wounds from the front lines in Southwest Asia to the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, a U.S. military site in Germany. The team dealt with soldiers afflicted with blast injuries suffered from mines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and gunshot wounds from high-velocity military weapons.
His time in active military service “was a whole different environment” from the trauma settings the surgeon was trained for and used to. The injured were cared for in three or four different places as opposed to one, he said.
The first location was a field hospital in Afghanistan only a few hundred yards behind the front lines. Dr. Sariego and his team was responsible for picking up patients from the front lines. After picking up the patients, the team would operate on the injured while on board a plane flying to a middle location, perhaps in Kandahar for an “additional patch-up.” From the middle location, while the team tried to “keep [the injured] alive, to stop bleeding and regulate breathing,” they would fly to Landstuhl in Germany for surgery.
The scene in the C130 jets, designed for medical evacuation and cargo transport could be hectic. Picture the injured on stands stacked four-to-five-stands high, like soldiers’ quarters on a ship, with medical equipment setup around the patient.
“On the aircraft you did what you could,” said Dr. Sariego. “You carried your stuff in backpacks … You tried not to do what you didn’t have to do … As a trauma surgeon, you’re trained to do anything, but nothing’s like the real thing.”
Dr. Sariego served on active duty until May, 2003. Afterwards, he stayed involved with the Air Force at Keesler Air Force Base in MS., while living in Ocean Springs and running a medical practice. At present, he is a Colonel in the USAFR Medical Corps.
In 2003, Dr. Sariego’s war service ended, but he was again pushed into the center of national catastrophe on August 29, 2005 when Hurricane Katrina battered the Gulf Coast region. “We were pretty much at ground-zero,” said Dr. Sariego, who said he remained in his home with his family during the storm.
While only the roof of his home was destroyed, his three partners involved with the Ocean Springs medical practice lost everything. “We got through the storm, but it kind of convinced us it was time to come home,” said Dr. Sariego.
In June, 2006, he moved to his current home in Jenkintown, where he is a member of Immaculate Conception Church. He also rekindled an old passion for performing and singing he had developed in the performing arts program at Jefferson Medical School. Though he was a tenor in the ’80s, time and age have deepened his voice to the level of baritone.
“My real love is musical theater,” said Dr. Sariego, who had a few opportunities to participate in community theater while living in Mississippi. When he returned to Philadelphia, he got involved with Jenkintown Music Theatre. He’s also a member of the Willow Manor Players, located in Abington.
This past March, he played the role of Daddy Warbucks in “Annie” with the Temple Sinai Players, located in Dresher. Until it dissolved in 2009, he sang with the nationally recognized Jefferson University Choir he had sung with almost 30 years earlier as a student. He also sings with the Delaware Valley Opera Group.
“It’s a great outlet,” said Dr. Sariego. “It’s a chance to do something totally different than you do in real life.” He said a number of individuals from high-stress professions resort to the stage as an outlet. To that affect, there were three doctors and four lawyers on the cast of Willow Manor’s production of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” last fall.
With his teaching schedule, performing surgery, acting and love of the Philadelphia Phillies, Dr. Sariego finds himself a man with a full schedule. “It’s hard. It’s a strain on the family. It’s a strain on the medical practice. But if you love something you find a way.”
Dr. Sariego admitted feeling fear before going on stage, although his fear of making a mistake on stage is nowhere near as great as in the operating room or when working on badly injured soldiers in difficult working situations.
“I try to remind myself this is what I do for fun,” said Dr. Sariego. “If I don’t get a role, it’s not the end of the world.”