Medics Improvise to save lives on killing fields of Afghanistan

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In a compelling story published today by the Washington Post, “Military medics combine ultramodern and time-honored methods to save lives on the battlefield” of Afghanistan.

Key Highlights:

  • At 6:09 p.m., Dustoff 57 has just left this base deep in Taliban-infiltrated Kandahar province, headed for a POI, or point of injury. Somewhere ahead of the aircraft is a soldier who minutes earlier stepped on an improvised explosive device, the signature weapon of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. All the helicopter crew knows is that he’s “category A” – critical.  The trip out takes nine minutes.  Fifteen minutes have now passed since the soldier was wounded. Speed, simplicity and priority have always been the hallmarks of emergency medicine. The new battlefield care that flight medics and others on the ground practice takes those attributes to the extreme.
  • Four people run to the helicopter with the stretcher holding the wounded soldier. He lies on his back partially wrapped in a foil blanket. His chest is bare. In the middle of it is an “intraosseous device,” a large-bore needle that has been punched into his breastbone by the medic on the ground. It’s used to infuse fluids and drugs directly into the circulatory system when a vein can’t be found. It’s a no-nonsense technology, used occasionally in World War II, that fell out of favor when cheap and durable plastic tubing made IV catheters ubiquitous in the postwar years. Until they were revived for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, intraosseus devices were used almost exclusively in infants whose veins were too small to find. On each leg the soldier has a tourniquet, ratcheted down and locked to stop all bleeding below it. These ancient devices went out of military use more than half a century ago because of concern that they caused tissue damage. Now every soldier carries a tourniquet and is instructed to put one on any severely bleeding limb and not think of taking it off.
  • Tourniquets have saved at least 1,000 lives, and possibly as many as 2,000, in the past eight years. This soldier is almost certainly one of them. They’re a big part of why only about 10 percent of casualties in these wars have died, compared with 16 percent in Vietnam.  On the soldier’s left leg, the tourniquet is above the knee. The tourniquet on his right leg is lower, below the knee; how badly his foot is injured is hard to tell from the dressings. His left hand is splinted and bandaged, too. Whether he will need an amputation is uncertain. The hospital where he’s headed treated 16 patients in September who needed at least one limb amputated. Half were U.S. soldiers, and the monthly number has been climbing since March.
  • After three minutes on the ground, the helicopter takes off.  Eleven minutes after lifting off from the POI, the helicopter lands at the so-called Role 3, or fully equipped, hospital at Kandahar Airfield, about 30 miles to the east of the also well-fortified Forward Operating Base Wilson. There, surgeons will take care of the injuries before transferring the patient, probably within two days, to the huge military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, and there, after a week or so, to the United States. It’s been 28 minutes since the helicopter left Forward Operating Base Wilson.

SFTT Analysis:

  • Before every Grunt leaves the wire, they want to know if air or artillery support is readily available and more importantly, if required, will an aerial medevac be responsive – in Joe speak “Time on Target for Air and Arty and a quick Nine-line medevac request . . . how quick will the angels of mercy get here?”.   Quick means quick, the sooner the better obviously, since every minute counts.  Secretary Gates figured this out when he began his battlefield circulation tours in Afghanistan when he became Secretary of Defense and quickly realized that the “Golden Hour”, that period in time that is the standard from time of request for a medevac to arrival at the point of injury and back to medical care on a base, was not being met in Afghanistan due to lack of medevac resources and the distant out-posts that troopers were operating from.  Secretary Gates made it a personal mission to close the gap and ensure that troopers were supported by the “Golden Hour” standard and personally kept the pressure on logistics planners to increase medevac resources and establish medical unit facilities in support of all forward deployed personnel.   The only question SFTT raises regarding this issue is why did it take the Secretary of Defense to correct this situation?  
  • The Washinton Post online article provides a remarkable photo gallery,  – of note is:
    • the destructive nature of an IED that targeted a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP).  The simplicity of a pressure plate device loaded with hundreds of pounds of fertilizer (and other components) can defeat US “resistant” vehicles.  More telling is that a device of this size takes time and local support to emplace;
    • grunts not wearing all of their protective gear – no throat, deltoid, or groin protectors – obviously a commanders call, but is the decision not to wear the complete armor suite because of weight and comfort?;
    • the chinstrap for the Advanced Combat Helmet is a flimsy strap of material – no chin pads are provided and the harness is simply used to hold the “brain bucket” in place.  At least the trooper is being medevaced for treatment of a possible TBI.
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