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Medical teams render assistance after Afghanistan avalanches

by Staff Sgt. Richard Williams
455th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs

2/10/2010 - BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan (AFNS) -- A series of avalanches struck a high pass in the Parwan Province of Afghanistan that have reportedly killed or injured hundreds of Afghan travelers. The avalanches, which occurred Feb. 8 and 9th, 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 across Bagram Airfield sprang into action, rendering medical care and assistance.

The initial call was received by the TF MED-East Tactical Operations Center at 3:28 a.m. notifying staff members there of the avalanche. At the time, approximately 150 people were trapped with helicopter evacuation as the only means of exit, according to Army 1st Sgt. Brian Fassler from TF MED-East.

By 12:50 p.m., 60 to 70 patients were inbound to Bagram Airfield.

The hospital staff began to prepare for a possible mass casualty situation, and 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.

Staff members at Craig Hospital, the primary military medical treatment facility for the entire country, 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 Capt. James McDaniel, the 455th EMDG/TF-MED medical readiness officer.

To assess care needs and ensure the hospital was not flooded with a large number of minimal-care patients, Soldiers from the 82nd Airborne and 30th MEDCOM set up a triage unit at the airfield's passenger terminal.

Sergeant Fassler explained that once initial assessments were made, individuals requiring medical attention were loaded onto busses and transported to the hospital. Remaining individuals were transported to an area where they received further assistance from coalition staff members.

Sergeant Fassler pointed out that normally with a battlefield injury the patient comes directly from the field to the medical facility.

"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."

Sergeant Fassler added that the highly trained staff at the medical facility is prepared to receive as many patients as are sent, and the real challenge is getting 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.

Captain McDaniel pointed out that there was a group of Afghan medical professionals who were vital to assisting the injured.

Local Afghan doctors with varying backgrounds, from internal medicine to an orthopedic surgeon, happened to be participating in a trauma mentorship program at the hospital and jumped 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," Captain McDaniel said.

He also explained the importance of the Afghan medical professionals as interpreters and liaisons to the patients in a cultural capacity.

"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 Afghan providers played a vital role in providing medical care to their own people. It was evident the local-national patients were more comfortable being treated by their fellow countrymen.

"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," Sergeant Fassler said.

Army Lt. Col. Joe Marsiglia, the TF MED-East tactical operations director, was impressed with not only the response from medical agencies on Bagram but the non-clinicians as well.

"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."

Colonel Marsiglia said no matter how much preparation goes into a training scenario, nothing prepares individuals for these types of large-scale situations and the response and support from all coalition agencies was top notch.

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