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Trauma team delivers critical care, saves lives in Afghanistan

  • Published
  • By Maj. Tony Wickman
  • 455th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
On the combat frontier, the ability to deliver advanced medical care usually means the difference between life and death for wounded service members.

In Afghanistan, that lifesaving capability is delivered by a highly specialized team of medical professionals at the Craig Joint Theater Hospital.

According to Maj. Stephen Varga, 455th Expeditionary Medical Group trauma czar, the hospital provides surgical capabilities in trauma, general surgery, orthopedics, neurosurgery, urology, vascular surgery, and otolaryngology, all of which are critical to helping 98 percent of patients who come to the hospital survive.

“CJTH provides surgical care for all troops, coalition forces, contractors, civilians, and local nationals here in Afghanistan,” said Varga, who is on his first deployment and whose home station is the San Antonio Military Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. “As trauma czar, my role is organizing care for complex surgical patients, many of whom have wounds requiring not only immediate lifesaving surgery, but additional surgeries by specialty teams such as orthopedics and neurosurgery.”

Varga said he takes care of a patient from the moment he or she is wheeled into the trauma bay, throughout surgery, while they recover in the intensive care unit, and until the patient is transferred out of theater as safely and efficiently as possible.

“Penetrating trauma like gunshot wounds, shrapnel injuries and the like are a surgical disease. The only way to fix hemorrhagic shock from penetrating trauma is to get patients into an operating room as quickly as possible,” Varga said. “Most combat-related injuries are from gunshot wounds or IED (improvised explosive devices).”

According to Col. Jacqueline Mudd, the 455thTH EMDG chief nurse and surgical services flight commander, it’s important to have surgical and operation room capabilities here because it dramatically increases patients’ survival rate while minimizing morbidity and mortality.

“If we weren’t here, patients would be subject to risky travel out of the AOR (area of responsibility) before receiving medical care, which can increase morbidity and mortality,” said Mudd, who is on her sixth deployment and whose home station is the David Grant Medical Center at Travis Air Force Base, California. “We deliver world-class quality surgical care and capability here at Bagram.”

The hospital’s surgical services flight is made up of three elements: operating room, including the sterile processing department; anesthesia element; and surgeon element. Since April, more than 20 surgeons, nurses and technicians have supported 264 cases, executing 474 procedures over 1,500 hours of surgery, including three mass casualty events and 70 trauma cases.

According to Varga, maintaining a Role 3 hospital in Afghanistan and the surgical capability it brings is vital to ensuring service members have the best chance of making it back home.

“The fatality rates of military members involved in this conflict are the lowest in history, and we aim to reduce those numbers even further,” Varga said. “Complex, traumatically injured patients require a multi-disciplinary approach to provide the best outcome and it’s essential someone is here to organize that approach.”

As the team wraps up their deployment, Mudd shared her highlights of the team saving lives in the operating room.

“Memorable cases including saving the life of a (service member) who had shrapnel pierce his heart, and another who had a gunshot wound to the brain that is now walking and talking with minimal residual deficit,” Mudd said. “There was also the young 8-year-old girl who was caught in crossfire, and the patient who required multiple days of surgery to restore his face to normal.”

Varga said the skill and capabilities of the team resulted in some truly incredible saves in the past six months.

“One solider suffered a (gunshot wound) to his chest and abdomen and his excessive blood loss caused his heart to stop while he was transported to CJTH. The moment he arrived, we rushed him immediately to the OR, restarted his heart and proceeded to repair multiple complex injuries to his liver and kidney along with major vascular repairs,” Varga said. “He survived and will soon be going home to his family.”

Varga said the entire CJTH team wants nothing more than to provide the best care possible and save the lives of fellow service members who are on the front lines serving his or her nation.

“We’re delivering health care equal to the care found in the best trauma centers in the U.S., a feat that can only be managed because of the extensive medical, security, administrative, supply and airlift support of the joint U.S. military services,” Varga said.

“Our mission is to continue improving the historically high survival rates currently seen in combat medicine despite severe and complex injuries suffered by our military and NATO members and our Afghan partners,” Varga said. “Our goal is make sure every service member we see in this hospital recovers and makes it home to the family he or she loves and the country he or she protects.”

For Col. Gianna Zeh, the 455th EMDG commander, she enjoys working with the joint medical team at CJTH and watching their efforts to save life, limb and eyesight of all the patients who come through the hospital.

“I’m humbled to lead this incredibly talented group of medics,” Zeh said. “They’ve answered their nation’s call and served with compassion.”