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Care under fire: Nurses provide medical, emotional support for those in need

U.S. Air Force Capt. James Dunham, an intensive care ward nurse at Craig Joint Theater Hospital, checks the vitals of a patient at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, May 3, 2017. As a nurse, Dunham is the link between the patient and doctor. They are responsible for ensuring medicine is administered, pain is managed and attending to the patient in any way they can. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Benjamin Gonsier)

Capt. James Dunham, an intensive care ward nurse at Craig Joint Theater Hospital, checks the vitals of a patient at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, May 3, 2017. As a nurse, Dunham is the link between the patient and doctor. He is responsible for ensuring medicine is administered, pain is managed and attending to the patient in any way they can. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Benjamin Gonsier)

BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan (AFNS) -- A doctor’s office can induce feelings of uncertainty and anguish, but those emotions quickly fade away when a warmhearted nurse greets you.

Whether the nurse is checking your pulse or taking blood, their hospitality quickly puts patients at ease.

In a deployed environment, where stress levels are through the roof, hospitality can mean everything to a patient who is recovering from a gunshot wound or was caught in a roadside bomb blast.

"We are by our patient’s side 24 hours a day, ensuring their medication is administered and pain is managed,” said Capt. James Dunham, an intensive care ward nurse at Craig Joint Theater Hospital. “We are there when they eat, take care of their day-to-day living arrangements and redress wounds or reapply bandages when something is wrong with it.”

Dunham, a native of College Station, Texas, graduated from the University of Texas Medical Branch with a Bachelor of Science in nursing. He joined the military for love of his country and to provide medical care to the warfighters and those affected by the outcome of war.

Working alongside the doctors, Dunham and the rest of the nurses at Craig Joint Theater Hospital assist the medical team in places like the intensive care ward or emergency room--doing everything they can to help the patient.

“Nurses are where the rubber meets the road,” said Capt. Daniel Flood, a doctor and internist at Craig Joint Theater Hospital. “They have more face-to-face time with the patients than the physicians do, which lets them get to know the patient better. It is their clinical impression that often notifies us doctors when we need to change our plan of care. The nursing staff makes all the difference in the world in having successful outcomes.”

At Bagram Airfield, where the mission differs from a home station medical treatment facility, the time a nurse and the rest of the medical staff spends with a patient is crucial to their recovery, especially those with serious and life-threatening injuries.

“At home station, we see retirees and dependents, and treat common ailments and injuries,” said Dunham. “Here, we treat wartime injuries inflicted upon U.S. service members, contractors, Afghan nationals and others in the warzone.”

This is Dunham’s third deployment, with his first two being in Iraq, working at Balad Hospital, and in Ramstein Air Base, Germany, where he transported wounded warriors away from the battlefield to more long-term care.

Medical professionals are trained to treat gruesome injuries, from car crashes to gunshot wounds, but the stress of a combat zone brings a new dynamic.

“While working at Balad Hospital, we had a mortar hit the building, so we had to evacuate the patients out of the emergency room and hospital, and move them to bunkers,” said Dunham. “We were providing care to patients in full body armor and in bunkers while setting up a contingency ER so we could see more patients. It was neat seeing all the training we go through come to fruition. We prepare for situations like that.”

The fear of being attacked and other factors of a deployed environment can take its toll on the medical staff, but the satisfaction from saving a life more than makes up for it.

“To be with someone from their weakest hour to see them grow strong again, to care for someone’s spiritual, emotional and physical needs, and get them back to where they can see their families and become a productive member of their society is one of the most rewarding things we see as nurses and medical technicians,” said Dunham.

Nurses, and all other medical personnel, work day and night ensuring the warfighter get back to the fight or back home, safe and sound. The mission relies on their professionalism and expertise, regardless of the situation at hand.

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