Field Hospital

John A Silkstone

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Afghanistan field hospital experiences bloodiest week

Camp Bastion's advanced field hospital has experienced its bloodiest week for British troops since operations began in Helmand with wards nearly at full capacity.

On Friday, the worst day for fatalities, medics worked for more than 17 hours without a break. Eight soldiers died in 24 hours.

At times 16 medics were tending to one patient as the battlefield casualties reached the highest number in a single day since the Falklands conflict of 1982, hospital sources disclosed.

Doctors and nurses were called in to operate from 5am on Friday and continued fighting to save lives until 10pm during a period in which they went through more than 100 pints of blood products.

“It was a long hard day but we are not going through what these young lads are going through,” said Major Kathryn Rickers, the hospital’s ward sister.

“That’s what we are here for and that’s what we do. Some of our surgeons are seeing more trauma in a few weeks than they would in a year back home.

“It does upset us all, it does have an effect on everybody seeing this all the time,” added the Territorial Army officer, who normally works as a midwife in Wolverhampton. L/Sgt Gethyn Rowlands was among the luckier soldiers treated at the hospital. A bullet clipped across his throat and entered his right shoulder after his unit was ambushed by the Taliban. The soldier from the Welsh Guards — which lost its commanding officer, Lt Col Rupert Thorneloe, during Operation Panther’s Claw —refused morphine so that he could save his comrades the effort of carrying him away from the enemy.

“I made the decision to walk out. I turned down morphine because I wanted to walk out rather than have the lads carry me out and they were still trying to suppress the enemy with gunfire,” he said.

Within 40 minutes L/Sgt Rowlands, from Anglesey, was on the operating table.

If all goes well he plans to be back in the action in 10 days’ time. “I want to be back with the lads to get on with it,” he said.
 
May they Rest In Peace. May God guide the hands of the medics and doctors trying to save the lives of these brave lads.
 
Helmand surgeon tells of her fight to save lives
There is a grim monotony to Surgeon Commander Sarah Stapley’s working day.

Surgeon Commander Sarah Stapley (Royal Navy) who is based at Camp Bastion Field Hospital, Helmand Province

Every morning – usually just after 7am – the pager strapped to her waist bleeps into life, warning the trauma team at the British Army’s field hospital in Helmand that a severely injured patient is inbound on a Chinook helicopter

The wounded are often young soldiers, usually the victims of an improvised explosive device (IED), with one or more of their limbs missing.

On Thursday, the MoD is due to publish new casualty figures which will reveal the number of soldiers killed during the first half of this month. It will include those injured on July 10, the worst single day for British forces so far. In one 24-hour period eight soldiers were killed and more than 30 were wounded, some severely, in a variety of attacks around the province.

While front-line troops are tackling the Taliban with bullet and bayonet, back in the safety of Camp Bastion, medics are waging a different but equally important daily battle: trying to keep alive soldiers whose injuries are so severe that just a few years ago they would have proved fatal.

Speaking from the field hospital in Camp Bastion, Surg Cdr Stapley told The Sunday Telegraph: “The demands are constant. Every day, we usually have a trauma call in the morning, first thing, that is when we are notified a casualty is coming in. Casualties are a daily occurrence, sometimes two, three, four times a day.”

The Royal Navy surgeon, who has completed three tours of Iraq and two in Afghanistan, says the injuries now being sustained by the troops are “horrific”.

“The injuries have become more severe than when I was here first, in 2007,” she said. “Each one is horrific but my experience helps me deal with them both professionally and psychologically. The injuries can be shocking but your main aim is to treat the patient so you have to put that behind you and you have to treat the patient and hopefully they will survive.”

In the past 10 days more than 157 people have been treated at the hospital for conditions ranging from battle shock and heat exhaustion to amputations and bullet wounds.

Mass casualty events are now common. Surg Cdr Stapley recalls that she worked for 33 hours over a 35-hour period shortly after arriving in Afghanistan five weeks ago. “We were having continuous casualties coming in every few hours and some of those required immediate surgery. Events like that are not unusual here, the time went actually very quickly – you do get use to working long hours.”

Surg Cdr Stapley’s decisions often mean the difference between life and death. If the victim’s limbs are badly damaged, she has to decide, and quickly, whether or not the arm and leg can be saved. “In many cases that decision has already been made for you because you are often dealing with a traumatic amputation,” said the orthopaedic surgeon who joined the Royal Navy in 1987.

Much has changed since 2007, when Surg Cdr Stapley, who has a long-term partner, first arrived in Helmand. Then the medical centre was housed in a tent. Today troops are treated by medics from Britain, Denmark and the United States in an air-conditioned field hospital with eight intensive care beds and two wards that can treat 25 patients.

The nature of the fighting in Helmand has also changed in that time.

Gone are the pitched battles with the Taliban which typified combat between 2006 and 2008, these days troops are targeted by suicide bombers and booby traps.

Those who survive are often left crippled, blind or brain damaged. Since 2006, 52 servicemen and women have lost one or more limbs, six have been paralysed and another seven have lost the use of one or both eyes.

Hundreds more have sustained lesser injuries and have often returned to the battlefield days, some times hours, later. Treatment at the medical centre is not restricted to members of Nato. The Afghan national army and police are also treated, as are civilians who get caught up in the fighting.

“We treat the Taliban as well, if required. The Taliban are just normal people. Many of them are grateful, many are scared. I don’t know what they have been told [about] what might happen in one of our hospitals but we treat every patient the same and to the best of our abilities and I think they are surprised that they get such treatment, and I hope they take that message with them.”

Away from the blood and gore of the operating theatre, Surg Cdr Stapley relaxes by going to the gym, eating or reading a book. “But most of all I try and sleep – that’s pretty important.”
 
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