31 July 2011

A chance in hell: Inside a combat hospital in Afghanistan

The combat hospital at Kandahar Airfield is among the most advanced treatment facilities to ever operate in a war zone. Roughly 70 percent of its patients come straight from the battlefield. In addition to U.S. and coalition service members, the hospital treats Afghans. For the staff, every day is spent working to keep death at bay. This video contains graphic images of war injuries. Viewer discretion advised. Video and story: The Virginian Pilot.

Pilot reporter Corinne Reilly and photographer Ross Taylor spent two weeks this spring in Afghanistan with the staff of the NATO hospital in Kandahar. This very well done story - first in a series - is a must-read.

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“I understand that it’s old news,” [Lt. Cmdr. Ron] Bolen says. “The stuff you hear about now – it’s all troop withdrawals and winding down.”

He closes his eyes for a moment and rubs them. It’s been a while since he slept. “All I can say is we got 19 new traumas yesterday. Nothing is winding…”

He’s interrupted by the beeping of the pager that never leaves his side. He unclips it from his waist and reads the message.

“IED blast,” he says. “Three patients en route.”

* * *

A chance in hell, Part One | Inside a combat hospital in Afghanistan.

The doctors can hear the wailing before their patient is even in sight.

A second later, a flight medic bursts through the trauma department doors. His face is serious. He’s short of breath. Outside, corpsmen rush to unload a soldier from a military ambulance that carried him here from a Black Hawk. Two dozen doctors, nurses and surgeons have been awaiting their arrival.

“Who am I talking to?” the medic shouts.

“Here!” blurts Lt. Cmdr. Ron Bolen, the head of the hospital’s trauma department. He points to the Navy doctor leading the team that will examine the soldier first.

“OK, you’ve got tourniquets on both legs,” the medic gulps. “The right one is totally gone to at least the knee. He lost a lot of blood.”

The doctor hurriedly inquires about vital signs, fluids administered in the field, and the weapon that caused the explosion that did all this.

The next question would usually be whether the patient is conscious, but this time no one has to ask.

Outside, the wailing is getting louder.

It’s a Sunday morning. The soldier is being wheeled inside. Ashen and shaking, he asks Bolen if this is the day he’s going to die.

“Don’t lie to me,” he pleads.

Bolen looks the soldier hard in the eyes. “You’re not going to die,” he says calmly. “And I don’t lie.”

Someone counts to three and the soldier is lifted in one fluid motion from the stretcher to a trauma bed. Seven people are working on him now, ripping away dirty clothes, starting IVs to replace lost blood and calling out vital signs.

“Temp is 97.9!”

“BP is 135 over 65!”

“Pulse is 117!”

A doctor cuts the tourniquet off the leg that’s still intact and runs his finger down the sole of the pale foot. “Can you feel this?”

A few minutes later the soldier is in the operating room. He’s writhing now more than shaking. Through the moans, he’s mumbling three words over and over.

“This is bad. This is bad. This is bad.”

He keeps lifting his head, trying to get a look.

On the end of the bed, the last right boot he ever put on is lying at an angle that’s all wrong, a sweaty foot still inside. The calf above it is a shredded mess of uniform, flesh, dirt and grass. Nothing about it looks real.

Above that there is no discernible knee, just a thin stretch of filthy skin barely hanging onto what’s left of a thigh, which looks a lot like the mangled calf, except for one thing: Among the blood and mud, there is a little white inchworm, scrunching and straightening, slowly making its way across a bit of dying muscle.

Somehow it survived an explosion the soldier may not.

Around him, a dozen people are preparing for surgery. The room smells like damp earth, rubbing alcohol and blood.

“Hang in there one more minute, bud,” the anesthesiologist says, trying uselessly to soothe his patient. “Everything’s gonna be OK in just a minute.”

A nurse walks in. Next to the boot, she sets down a medical form.

It says the soldier’s name is Eddie Ward.

It says he is 19 years old.

Read the whole thing.

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