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Colorado-Based Air Force ICU Saving Vets’ Lives

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Peterson Air Force Base (credit: CBS)

Peterson Air Force Base (credit: CBS)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. (AP) – It’s like the best intensive care unit you could find, staffed with doctors, nurses, technicians and the machine that makes pinging noises.

While the space is cramped, it can house dozens of patients, a truckload of medicines, ventilators and oxygen tanks. But the high-tech hospital that’s credited with saving thousands of American lives in Iraq and Afghanistan has one major disadvantage.

It can crash.

Not that the military patients worry about that as they’re rushed from the battlefield aboard transport planes converted into hospitals.

“They’ll remember their injury and then they’ll remember waking up in Germany,” said Col. Kathleen Flarity, commander of the 34th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron at Peterson Air Force Base, who led a team through an airborne training exercise aboard a C-130 transport plane last week.

The 34th, an Air Force Reserve unit, uses part-time airmen who leave civilian hospitals and clinic to put on the uniform. On a four-month overseas deployment this year, they flew hundreds of patients from Iraq and Afghanistan to military hospitals in Europe and America — with most being loaded on the plane within hours of being shot or bombed.

During those four months, the squadron didn’t lose a single patient on the long flights.

To get the job done, the Air Force has equipped its transport planes with racks to carry stretchers and other gear that allow them to be turned into hospital wards.

“It’s anything we could do in an intensive care unit,” said Lt. Col. Chris Ryan, a doctor who flies with patients in critical condition.

In past wars, American patients spent days or weeks at front-line hospitals before being sent for stateside care. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the heavy lifting of medical care has been transferred to the better equipped hospitals, and patients are sent away for treatment after a quick stop for emergence care.

The results have been striking. A recent Harvard study found that for every soldier killed in Iraq, 16 have survived their wounds — a survival rate more than five times greater than during the Vietnam war.

For all their live-saving hype, the actual medical evacuation flights are mostly boring. The most critical patients are in a drug-induced coma. Pain medications put most of the other patients to sleep before takeoff.

Airmen from the squadron, who get patient records before takeoff, monitor vital signs, dispense medication and check dressings during the flight.

They’re equipped to deal with heart attacks and major bleeding — anything short of surgery — while in the air.

“If your flight is uneventful, you do the happy dance,” Flarity said.

On last week’s training flight, though, everything went wrong.

“People won’t know what emergency to expect on this flight,” promised Tech. Sgt. Angela Yahne, who was tasked with torturing the medical crew during the four-hour expedition.

Mock patients tried to die. Turbulence, generated by the flight crew, made for a bumpy ride. The C-130 plummeted half a mile during a drill to simulate a loss of cabin pressure.

The medics stayed calm, if somewhat nauseated, and kept their patients alive.

“It takes five or six flights to get used to it,” said the squadron’s Maj. Carrie Williamson.

Even when you’re used to it, though, medicine in the sky aboard a storm-tossed plane isn’t easy, even for nurses who are normally expert marksmen when it comes to needles.

“It’s challenging if you’re trying to start an I.V.,” Williamson said.

Flarity, a Colorado Springs trauma nurse in civilian life, said battlefield innovations, including the rapid transport of patients, will keep paying dividends long after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan end.

“If it works well in the war zone, we start doing it here,” she said.

By TOM ROEDER, The Gazette

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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