Medics give frontline care in Afghanistan

Military ambulances at the Role 3 hospital facility in Camp Bastion, Afghanistan.'''''Picture:  Sergeant Barry Pope RLC (Phot)
Military ambulances at the Role 3 hospital facility in Camp Bastion, Afghanistan.'''''Picture: Sergeant Barry Pope RLC (Phot)

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Two ambulances race across the dust to the helicopter landing site outside Camp Bastion’s field hospital.

Shortly afterwards, two US Black Hawk helicopters touch down and drop off two casualties into the waiting vehicles.

At the hospital, a team of medics is waiting by the doors to meet the ambulances which are now speeding back towards them, while inside the emergency room is being prepared.

When the Land Rovers arrive, the two injured men are transferred onto waiting stretcher trolleys and wheeled into the hospital for treatment.

Minutes later, the helicopters are gone, the ambulances are back in their bays, the hospital’s emergency ramp is empty, and that sudden burst of activity seems over.

Welcome to the field hospital at Camp Bastion, one of the busiest trauma centres in the world.

For the last seven months, the hospital has been under the control of Gosport-based 33 Field Hospital.

It is a role which has taken more than a year of preparation for the unit to assume command and keep up the high standards built up at the centre over 10 years.

Major James Fisher says: ‘This is the best trauma hospital in the world, bar none.

‘We are leading the world in how to operate a military field hospital.

‘It has been a successful tour for everyone and we have come together well and for a lot of people here that have done it before.

‘Everyone should be rightly proud of what they do here, because some of the work they do is miraculous.

‘Medically speaking, we treat everyone the same, whether you are a UK soldier or an Afghan from whatever side.

‘We have found that has been a real hearts and minds winner.’

The Camp Bastion field hospital was opened in 2003, and has 40 beds, four operating tables, and two X-ray scanners.

In many ways it mimics all the facilities you would normally found in a civilian hospital in the UK.

The only difference is the level of trauma the medics there have to deal with on a regular basis.

Medics in the military used to refer to the crucial time period immediately after an injury as the ‘golden hour’, but this has now become the ‘platinum 10 minutes’.

The reduce the number of casualties during these vital minutes, it is now easier for emergency medicine to be provided on the scene.

The field hospital is also in charge of the Medical Emergency Response Team (MERT), a helicopter carrying highly-trained medical personnel who can deliver life-saving care en route to the hospital.

Most soldiers who are injured and require emergency evacuation can expect to be taken by helicopter to the hospital within an hour.

Maj Fisher added: ‘We have got it right now, how we deliver health care out here.

‘It really is incredible what we are capable of doing.

‘We have consultants with the casualties pretty much every step of the way.

‘The cost of running this sort of set-up in the NHS would be prohibitive.’

Camp Bastion’s field hospital is a place where lives are saved seemingly against all odds.

And much of the pioneering work they do is being fed back to the UK for the NHS to learn from any discoveries made in how to deal with trauma cases.

Many of the medics work within the NHS when they are in the UK, and will take home the lessons they have learned from working in a busy emergency department in a war zone.

Flight Lieutenant John Dutton, 36, from Cosham, works at Queen Alexandra Hospital in Cosham during his time in the UK.

But in Afghanistan, he is a team leader in the emergency department.

‘It has been a fantastic experience here,’ he says.

‘It has been great to provide a level of care that is second to none and it’s something I have not done before.

‘The biggest highlight for me is being able to see the survival rates out here.

‘It’s a very good feeling knowing that someone has survived when they probably wouldn’t have if they were elsewhere.’

The history of 33 Field Hospital goes back as far as the Boer War.

But it was in 1996 the medical unit moved into its new base in Fort Blockhouse, Gosport.

Since then, the hospital unit has been deployed to Iraq in 2006, as part of Operation Telic 9.

They also did a tour of duty in Afghanistan in 2009 as part of Operation Herrick 11.

The role of 33 Field Hospital is to provide hospital care in any environment.

It is mainly manned by personnel from the Royal Army Medical Corps, but also has Queen Alexandra Royal Army Nursing Corps, Royal Army Dental Corps, Royal Electrical Mechanical Engineers, Royal Logistics Corps, and Adjutant General Corps within its ranks.

When 33 Field Hospital returns to Gosport later this year, the town will welcome them home with a parade through its streets.

There will be a parade on October 30 after a private presentation of medals at Haslar.

They will then march out of Haslar, over the bridge, and onto the nearby Timespace area at Trinity Green, where there will be a service of thanksgiving for their safe return.

Councillor Derek Kimber is Gosport Borough Council’s armed forces champion.

He says: ‘Gosport and all its residents are extremely proud to have 33 Field Hospital based at Fort Blockhouse, and will be pleased to see them home safe and sound in October.

‘I hope as many Gosport people as possible turn out for their welcome parade on October 30 and cheer them as they march through our High Street.’

Train hard and treat easy — that’s the approach of the medics when it comes down to preparing for their vital role in Afghanistan.

The Army has a replica of its Camp Bastion field hospital set up in a warehouse at a base in Strensall, Yorkshire.

Before deploying to the war zone, 33 Field Hospital and the other servicemen and women who would be working with them spend weeks at the training centre experiencing a bad day in Bastion.

It’s a bit like Groundhog Day — endless medical emergencies, with casualties pouring into the unit with seemingly no end in sight.

Fortunately the blood is fake, and the amputees are actors, but the lessons learned from the experience are invaluable in helping the medics get to work when they eventually arrive in theatre.

Major Mari Roben is the senior nursing officer with 33 Field Hospital.

She says: ‘It has been an excellent deployment and the training plays a huge part in making sure we are ready.

‘I have really enjoyed working with our Danish and US counterparts and it was great to train with them.

‘The exercise we did before we arrived out here saw us all working really hard because that was really the first time we came together.’

Maj Roben last deployed to Afghanistan in 2011.

She adds: ‘Our patient ratio is different this time, we had a lot of UK and US casualties in 2011.

‘There are now more casualties from the Afghan National Security Forces. That has been one of the biggest changes since I was last here.’

The field hospital brings together 360 people from more than 40 different units, including three services, and three nations.

Lieutenant Colonel Marc Fry, of the US Army, says: ‘If I had to deploy again I would not hesitate to deploy with 33 Field Hospital.

‘The training we had with them is the best military training I have ever seen and I hope it’s something we can take back to the US and develop there.’

Soldiers operating in a war zone need the best trauma care available to them should the worst happen.

But when you have thousands of people working in a sprawling base in the middle of a desert, there are inevitably other health needs as well.

The medical centre at Camp Bastion also houses wards for non-emergency care, a dentistry department, sexual health and mental health clinics, and the equivalent of a GP surgery.

Those who work in the primary care areas deal with everything from regular coughs and colds to sports and fitness injuries and insect bites.

The aim is to make as many medical problems treatable in theatre as possible, making sure soldiers can remain on top form in Camp Bastion rather than having to return home.

Major Andrew Curphey, 41, from Portsmouth, is a member of the Territorial Army and former pupil of Portsmouth Grammar School.

In the UK, he works as a GP while living at home with his wife and their two-year-old daughter.

In Afghanistan, Maj Curphey works as a doctor.

He says: ‘It’s hard work, but it has made me realise that I don’t avoid difficulty in life.

‘If I never did anything challenging then I wouldn’t be happy.

‘I have a two-year-old daughter and that separation from her and my wife has been very hard, but it has been a good experience and I am looking forward to getting home now.

‘There are a lot of people out here who have been working very hard, but they’re missing home and they’re tired.

‘Being in the Army is a career for me, and not just something I do at weekends.’