Docs on the front line: IED blast injuries, like those suffered by five-year-old Kamila, are all too common

By NICOLE BERGOT, SUN MEDIA

Last Updated: 27th November 2009, 2:29am

KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan -- Five-year-old Kamila Gul should not have survived the mine blast that slammed shrapnel into her tiny body, most of it to her skull.

Medical staff at Kandahar Airfield hospital call her a miracle.

After more than seven weeks of care following emergency surgery to remove the shrapnel from her brain, the little girl -- staring stoically from her hospital cot into the eyes of onlookers while she plays with a plastic yellow hairbrush -- will be ready to return home within a week.

"The Taliban put the mine there. It killed my brother," her father Fada Gul, seated cross-legged and barefoot on the bed beside his bandaged child, says through an Afghan translator. The mine blast occurred on a small road near the family's farm.

"She is fine now. They take good care of her in the hospital. Thanks to all these medical staff," says Gul, adding he's grateful to Canadians for all their efforts.

"We need help."

Edmonton-based Lt.-Col. Chris Linford says two-thirds of what medical staff see here are IED blast injuries like those suffered by Kamila.

The majority of the remaining cases are fragment and gunshot wounds.

Linford, from St. Albert, is the health-service operations officer and one of 28 Canadians working at the multinational medical facility, of which he is deputy commander.

The hospital is just metres from an airstrip so trauma teams can prioritize the patients within minutes. The unit houses a CT scanner, bumping it up to a Role Three hospital, a NATO term for a trauma surgical facility.

The majority of patients seen are coalition forces and Afghan locals.

Down the hall from Gul and his daughter, American army nurse Lindsay McQuade watches over a boy who doctors guess is about 10 years old.

He suffered similar head trauma from a mine blast three days ago.

"There is shrapnel left in his brain. He has abrasions to his hands and legs," she says of the child named Ezatolah.

She is now keeping an eye on his neural stats.

"He comes in and out of consciousness. He'll wake up and he'll cry but there's no meaningful reaction to his dad."

Four American soldiers are in ICU beds on the other side of the wall, two of them suffering blast injuries, two with appendicitis.

Capt. Mike Penkman, a physician with first field ambulance in Edmonton, arrived for his first tour in September and will be here about seven months.

"It's a pretty humbling experience to see 18- to 19-year-old soldiers, seeing guys who are giving limbs to this conflict," he says.

After three months on the ground, the shock of the injuries he deals with is beginning to wane.

"And in the trauma bay there's not a lot of processing what you see," he says.

Usually, the hospital team has some warning of incoming patients. Troops responding to international incidents radio in, assessments are made and the appropriate specialists are called in.

The hardest days are when there is no warning.

"That happened a few weeks ago when we were hiding during a rocket-attack alarm," says Penkman, now laughing at the ordeal.

Rocket attacks on the base are common, though not a threat of imminent danger, as most of the insurgent weaponry and attempts are weak at best.

Above a hallway inside the unit hangs a heavy crutch-shaped piece of wood. It is, in fact, a piece of an Afghan cart that was used as a leg splint for a soldier on the field.

Above the operating doors hangs a long yellow sticky bug trap, covered in flies.

A new brick hospital will replace the plywood facility sometime next year.

NICOLE.BERGOT@SUNMEDIA.CA


WOW! A lot of the folks here at the Medical School have done "their turn" through Kanahar Hospital, and most of them dont really talk about their experiences. Most of the medics have seen front line service, and the doctors and nurses were hospital staff.