Airmen help build Afghan military medical capability

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Rachel Martinez
  • 455th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
A small group of Airmen helped transform a once empty building into a fully functional hospital at Camp Hero in Kandahar Province that is now staffed by Afghan national army personnel and capable of caring for ANA soldiers, Afghan national police members, and their families.

The Kandahar Regional Military Hospital is a $10 million facility featuring 50-beds, two operating rooms and an intensive care unit. 

In addition, there is ongoing construction for a 50-bed expansion. Since opening its doors in January 2008, the hospital staff has treated more than 12,000 outpatients and 600 inpatients.

"This hospital is probably the most successful of the ANA hospitals," said Lt. Col. Edward Fieg, a 205th Afghan Regional Security Integration Command mentor.

Much of that success can be attributed to the Air Force medical embedded training team. Air Force doctors, nurses, anesthesiologists, pharmacists, administrators, radiologists, medics, technicians and logisticians mentored their Afghan counterparts and taught the skills required to successfully treat and care for Afghans.

The medical mentoring team focused on three main goals: To produce smarter Afghan healthcare workers, procure better equipment and to improve healthcare planning and execution.

Lt. Col. Susan Bassett, a registered nurse, mentored the hospital's chief nurse and his team of 30 nurses. She spent a lot of time focusing on basic nursing care, such as cleanliness and sterilization.

"We've given them a lot of high-tech equipment, and now we need to show them how to use it," she said. "They see new things and they know about them, but they don't have the basic education to do it." 

Nurses in Afghanistan attend a nine-month training program, but they learn more about tasks the doctor might ask them to do than they do about the body and disease, Colonel Bassett said. This is where nurses and mentors play a big role.

"My 30 years of nursing have prepared me for this," Colonel Bassett said. "I can give what they so badly need. We are helping a whole nation come up in care."

One medical area the Afghans are quickly advancing in is anesthesiology. When he first arrived almost a year ago, Maj. Elvin Cruz, an anesthesiologist mentor, guessed the Afghans were about 30 years behind in the practice. Beginning with the basics of anatomy and physiology, he worked to bring them up to speed.

"During the time I have been here, they have been able to do their first arterial line to monitor blood pressure invasively, they did some central lines, and they did their first nerve block on their own hands," he said. "They are very good with their hands, so they can do most the procedures. And they are getting good at being vigilant and monitoring. I am trying to get them to the point where they will be able to safely perform anesthesia and get the patient safely to the recovery area, and they are very close. I really think that by the time I leave here they will be self-sufficient."

Major Cruz does a lot of hands-on training, but also held lectures every other day. His lectures were presented in both English and Dari. Additionally, he has built a Web site that features a variety of anesthesiology information.

"They are very happy with the Web site. It's a completely new technology for them -- using the internet as a learning tool," he said. "Right now, there is only anesthesia information, but there is the capability to put any information from any of the mentors. So not only will we be able to have an impact on this hospital, but we are passing information to the other hospitals in Afghanistan."

One area outside of patient care the medical mentors are working to improve is supply and logistics. Getting supplies and maintaining a stock of needed supplies has historically been a challenge. Supplies would be pushed out to regional hospitals once a year, and whatever they received was what they had to work with for the year. Medical logistics mentors are trying to turn what was a once a year push system, to a quarterly pull system based on needs.

"We want them to be more aware of what's available to them and improve the supply chain," said Maj. Jeff Atkisson, the medical logistics mentor. "Some of our goals would be to have a full inventory at the warehouse -- an automated inventory. Right now everything is on paper or in their head. We want to have a system where we know exactly what's in the warehouse at all times, and the customer also needs to know."

Major Atkisson said he has found the Afghans easy to work with and eager to learn. The other mentors have experienced the same thing.

"They really look up to the mentors," Major Cruz said. "They want information and they want to learn these skills."

The eagerness to learn and the progress the Afghans are making have helped make the year-long deployment rewarding for Major Cruz. For others, the reward is getting the chance to work with Afghans and learn from them.

"The Afghan people are absolutely wonderful," Colonel Bassett said. "They are the most gracious people. They cannot start to work until they shake your hand and ask about your family. I need to remember that when I go home. Not many people would say a 365-day deployment is a blessing, but I would. "

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