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Saturday, May 21, 2011

Airborne medics save life and limb from chopper over Afghanistan's war zone

Airborne medics save life and limb from chopper over Afghanistan's war zone
"Do you know what a soldier is? He's the chap that makes it possible for civilised people to despise war" - Allan Massie
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — The distressed cries of the little girl are obvious in any language: "Daddy, daddy, it hurts."
Her eyes speak pain, fear and confusion, even if her words are drowned out by the pulsing scream of the helicopter turbines.
Her father, clutching a stuffed animal in his left hand, reaches over and puts his right hand on her bare chest, soothing her as he gently admonishes her to be quiet.
The girl, just seven years old, is on her way to hospital via an American medevac chopper from Kandahar city, where she had been shot in the back during insurgent unrest.
The bullet tore her through her slender frame, exiting her abdomen and lodging in her arm.
U.S. Staff Sgt. Rob Marchetti places an oversized pair of headphones over her ears to quiet the noise of the chopper and allow the calm chatter of the crew to comfort her.
Medics in action
He puts an oxygen mask over her mouth, hooks her to a monitor, and keeps a close eye on her stable vital signs for the 15-minute flight to the hospital on an Afghan army base.
"Some days you help people — you get that opportunity — and some days you don't," Marchetti says.
"When you have good days where you get to help people and everybody goes home safe ... you hold on to that, because it doesn't always happen."
The little girl's rescue turned out to be an easy call for Charlie Company of 1st Battalion, 52nd Aviation Regiment, based at Kandahar Airfield, where on-call crews wait for the radio announcement that will send them scrambling:
"Medevac! Medevac! Medevac!"
With those three words, the ever-present hurry-up-and-wait routine — time that's usually passed by watching war movies or comedy schlock — gives way to an urgent new reality of flesh, bone and blood.
From somewhere in the war zone, a desperate plea for help has been made. Life itself hangs in the balance.
Soon, a medic will be performing life-saving measures for a dizzying array of grisly injuries: amputations, bullet and shrapnel wounds, crushed skulls.
"You have to be an idiot," Staff Sgt. Stephon Flynn, another medic, says only half-jokingly about the key job attribute.
"You see stuff no human being should have to look at."
If you're going to get blown up or shot in the combat zone, as has been the case for hundreds of Canadians in Afghanistan, these are definitely among the folk you most want to see first, and in a hurry.
Armed with the minimum information — where exactly is the casualty, how bad is it, and is fighting raging in the area — the two pilots, the crew chief and the medic scramble across the tarmac to their waiting chopper.
For "Cat A" injuries, the classification reserved for the most severe of cases, the maximum allowable time for the team to get airborne is 15 minutes. These guys can do it in as little as eight minutes.
Their Black Hawk helicopters — one, unarmed, to carry the passengers, the other an armed escort — scream over the Kandahar desert, homes or farm fields in search of the point of injury.
The casualty might be a Canadian, American or other NATO soldier. It could be an Afghan soldier or civilian. The team reacts the same way every time.
The pilot swoops in and lands, occasionally taking enemy fire, and the casualty or casualties are stretchered on board. Then it's off again on a mad dash to hospital.
As crucial seconds and minutes tick away, the medics do whatever they need to stabilize the patient.
They thread needles into veins even as the chopper bucks and swerves, and offer IV fluids and pain medication. They open chests to deal with collapsed lungs or punch holes in the trachea to keep the patient breathing.
It's often delicate work, conducted in a tiny space the size of a small elevator that bucks and dips like a roller coaster. One misstep, and you're standing on a patient's head or mangled leg.
"It's hard to do that back there," Flynn says. "You learn the balance and you learn to hold on at all times."
The calm competence of the medics is a studied contrast with the mangled, jarring and disoriented pain of the wounded.
An Afghan man raises his dusty, blood-streaked head and reaches tentatively for his hastily bandaged right foot — the one that's just been shredded by a landmine.
His parched mouth is twisted in a grimace as he surveys unfamiliar surroundings with his one open eye.
Capt. Jordan Yokley offers a thumb's up, gently lies him back down and places a comforting hand on his shoulder.
Marchetti pours gratefully accepted sips of water into his mouth while the intravenous pain medication eases his racing heart rate. His hand grasps Yokley's calf.
Alongside him, another man, his head peppered with shrapnel wounds from the blast, looks to be sleeping peacefully as Marchetti slices through his clothes and hooks him to a monitor.
Bushra Saeed, a Canadian diplomat who was horribly maimed in an IED strike in December 2009, says she barely remembers her medevac flight, which seemed to her to be over in mere seconds, nor the medics who helped keep her alive.
"I remember looking at the top of the helicopter, then looking out the window and seeing beautiful mountains and beautiful sky and thinking it was so odd to have such beautiful scenery and such horrible incidents take place."
The medics say they force themselves to detach from the ugly reality of their patients, both while working and when lying in the quiet of their beds.
"It doesn't do me any good to second-guess myself or worry about that guy," Flynn says. "Letting him into my thoughts at night is not doing me any good."
Soon, the casualties are delivered into the care of a hospital trauma team.
Still, Marchetti says, the medics are constantly thinking about what's been done and how to do it better the next time.
"Any medic that tells you any different is lying," he says. "There's always stuff you think about, and it never goes away."
The crew touches down again briefly to fuel up the chopper, and heads back to base, where the wait begins all over again. The medics wouldn't have it any other way.
"Us sitting around doing nothing is a very good thing," Flynn says.
"Experience comes at a cost here."

1 comment:

  1. Paul I like what S/Sgt. Flynn said: "Us sitting around doing nothing is a very good thing" ... I totally agree ... it is a good thing when the Medics can sit around doing nothing because that means that nobody has been injured or maimed in any way ... and that to me, is always good thing.