Medics In Training: Treating Soldiers In Transit

Among the thousands of U.S. military men and women still fighting in Afghanistan, many will have their missions cut short by serious injury. Quickly airlifting them out of the war zone requires teams of specially trained medical personnel. Cheri Lawson of WNKU spent the day at a Cincinnati, Ohio, hospital where the rigorous training takes place.

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For the thousands of U.S. military men and women still fighting in Afghanistan, the realities of war mean many will have their missions cut short by serious injury. Airlifting the wounded out of the war zone and to a hospital requires specially trained medical teams. Cheri Lawson of member station WNKU spent time with trainees of the Air Force's critical care air transport team in Cincinnati. That's where the training takes place.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIRCRAFT ENGINE)

CHERI LAWSON, BYLINE: This is not the sound of a commercial airliner taking passengers on a routine trip. It's a C-130 transport, and it's part of the training for teams who care for American soldiers injured on the battlefield; injured so badly that in a normal hospital setting, they might not be moved across the hall, let alone hundreds or thousands of miles.

DR. JAY JOHANNIGMAN: On all of my deployments, I remember the first two weeks feeling how naive and how ill-prepared I was despite having done this many times and having been a civilian trauma surgeon for over 15 years.

LAWSON: Dr. Jay Johannigman is director of trauma at Cincinnati's University Hospital. A colonel in the Air Force Reserves, he's been on dozens of airborne missions in war zones. He was instrumental in setting up C-STARS, Cincinnati's Center for the Sustainment of Trauma and Readiness Skills. It's one of five such centers and the only one training critical care air transport teams in the U.S.

At the core of the training is a simulation room that provides a realistic experience of medical care at 35,000 feet.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Urine output. Right now, we have 45 ccs of urine.

JOHANNIGMAN: This is as close to being on an aircraft as we can possibly get so that those mistakes, if they're going to be made, are going to be made in here rather than the first time you're flying a casualty back home.

LAWSON: Johannigman says the patients in these simulations are actually specially-designed high-tech mannequins or robots.

JOHANNIGMAN: These simulators have the capacity and the capability of breathing, of talking, of having vital signs, and having physiologic problems, having real medical problems that are very similar to what our patients experience.

LAWSON: The three-member critical air transport or CCAT teams are responsible for moving wounded soldiers to base hospitals in the Middle East, Europe or even back to America. Dr. Warren Dorlac, former director of the Cincinnati program, says the training is by design intense and stressful on the trainees.

DR. WARREN DORLAC: They know in the back of their mind and the back of their heart that they're completely responsible for getting this patient back to his family.

LAWSON: Each two-week course prepares over a dozen active duty, reserve or guard personnel who already have at least two years experience in critical care.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is the different zones of the lungs...

LAWSON: The training includes classroom lectures and work in hospital emergency and trauma care. At the end of the course, the students take to the air in the back of a Kentucky National Guard C130 transport. It mimics the bumpy, noisy, and long flights out of the war zone which are sometimes as long as eight hours. For Captain Brooke Albright, the two weeks of training have been invaluable but stressful.

BROOKE ALBRIGHT: You know, it's dark, and supplies are hidden in a backpack that's tucked away somewhere. So you have to be able to be vigilant and really know what's going on and stay on top of things.

LAWSON: The C-STARS program is a joint venture of military and civilian medicine. Instructor Dr. Timothy Pritts says the collaboration allows both communities to learn from each other.

DR. TIMOTHY PRITTS: There's a famous saying that the only victor in a war is medicine. Each conflict teaches us a lot about how to take care of traumatized patients and civilian patients in the trauma world.

LAWSON: Since 2001, CCAT has trained more than 700 medics who've transported nearly 10,000 patients. Those who complete the program will be quickly deployed overseas. For NPR News, I'm Cheri Lawson in Cincinnati.

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