Medical Teams Render Aid After Afghanistan Avalanches
By Air Force Staff Sgt. Richard Williams
Special to American Forces Press Service
BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan, Feb. 11, 2010 Coalition forces, volunteers and Afghan doctors are working to render medical care and assistance in the wake of a series of avalanches that struck a high pass in Afghanistan’s Parwan province Feb. 8 and 9. Video
Air Force Master Sgt. Jan Fink holds a young avalanche survivor who was medically evacuated to Craig Joint Theater Hospital at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, Feb. 9, 2010. Dozens of Afghans were taken to Bagram Airfield after avalanches struck a mountain pass in Parwan province. U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Jeromy K. Cross
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
The avalanches reportedly killed or injured hundreds of Afghan travelers and have cut off a major route between Kabul and northern Afghanistan.
Afghan doctors and coalition members of Task Force Medical East, 82nd Airborne, 30th Medical Command and the 455th Expeditionary Medical Group, along with volunteers from here, are aiding the survivors.
The initial call was received by the Task Force Medical East Tactical Operations Center at 3:28 a.m., notifying staff members of the avalanche. At the time, about 150 people were trapped with helicopter evacuation as the only means of exit, said Army 1st Sgt. Brian Fassler, from the task force.
By 12:50 p.m., 60 to 70 patients were inbound to the airfield here.
The hospital staff began to prepare for a possible mass casualty situation. Within 45 minutes, Craig Joint Theater Hospital here went from a 41-bed facility to a more than 100-bed facility, equipped and ready to receive patients.
Hospital staff members prepared for surge operations that required a quick reaction force to implement proper security measures for the hospital and to prepare additional assistance areas for a mass influx of patients, said Air Force Capt. James McDaniel, medical readiness officer for the 455th Expeditionary Medical Group and Task Force Medical.
Soldiers from the 82nd Airborne and 30th Medical Command set up a triage unit at the airfield's passenger terminal to assess care needs and to ensure the hospital wasn’t flooded with a large number of minimal-care patients.
Once initial assessments were made, those needing hospital care were loaded onto busses and transported to the hospital, Fassler said. Remaining patients were transported to an area where they received further assistance from coalition staff members.
With a battlefield injury, the patient normally comes directly from the field to the medical facility, Fassler said.
"We perform various battle drills that prepare us for these types of situations," he said. "This is unique because we are receiving patients from an event that happened seven hours ago and they will be clinically cold and some have varying phases of hypothermia and frostbite so this is a complete non-battlefield-related injury situation."
The highly trained staff at the medical facility is prepared to receive as many patients as are sent, Fassler said, but the real challenge is transporting the patients from a remote location with avalanche-covered roads and no clear places to land helicopters.
In addition to the Craig Hospital staff, medical and nonmedical volunteers flooded the area to assist with patient care, litter carry, security and a host of other duties.
A group of Afghan medical professionals also were vital in assisting the injured, McDaniel noted.
Local Afghan doctors with varying backgrounds, from internal medicine to an orthopedic surgeon, had been participating in a trauma mentorship program at the hospital and stepped in to provide care to many of the patients.
"This experience is important so they can see how we prepare for medical emergencies of this magnitude," McDaniel said.
The Afghan medical professionals also were valuable as interpreters and cultural liaisons to the patients, he noted.
"For some of the patients coming from remote areas of Afghanistan, this may be their first and only interaction with coalition forces," the captain said. "The importance lies in the fact that we are professional and sensitive to their cultural needs. The assistance we receive from the Afghans helps to convey the respect and professionalism these people need and deserve."
The response truly was a team effort, Fassler said.
"We have had doctors and medics from all over the post coming to assist, and that is important because this was a Bagram Airfield-wide emergency, not just a Craig Joint Hospital issue," he said.
Army Lt. Col. Joe Marsiglia, tactical operations director for Task Force Medical East, said he was impressed with the response.
"I was amazed with the amount of assistance received from all of the units here, not just the medical personnel assigned to the hospital," he said. "When the call went out, we had volunteers from everywhere and were having to redirect assistance."
No matter how much preparation goes into a training scenario, Marsiglia said, nothing prepares peoples for such large-scale situations. The response and support from all coalition agencies was top notch, he said.
(Air Force Staff Sgt. Richard Williams serves with the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing public affairs.)