A nurse’s story from Afghanistan

20th Fighter Wing Public AffairsJuly 11, 2012 

— In the darkness of the night, a helicopter on a medevac mission flew across the hot, dry land of Afghanistan carrying a wounded Afghan in critical condition.

U.S. Air Force Capt. Jennifer Mitchum, of Shaw’s 20th Medical Operations Squadron, a clinic nurse and flight chief at the Family Health Clinic, and an Army medic flew with the patient and monitored his life support machines. The beeping of the machines was drowned out by the noise of the helicopter.

Not even halfway through the trip, the patient began to "crash." His blood pressure dropped and one of his lungs collapsed. Using small green flashlights to see, Mitchum recalled, she and the medic searched for the problem by checking the drip, his pulse and ensuring that machines were operating correctly.

After an initial burst of nervousness because there was no doctor on board, Mitchum and the medic began cardiopulmonary resuscitation to save their patient. While Mitchum preformed chest compressions, she called to the pilot to turn around.

The medical team at Combat Outpost Khilagay, Afghanistan, was able to save the man’s life after performing a one-and-a-half-hour surgery.

For her first deployment, Mitchum was attached to the Army’s 2nd Forward Surgical Team and was sent to Khilagay as a trauma and surgical nurse for a six-month tasking.

Air Force medics, like Mitchum, are embedded in Army units because the Army tends to deploy entire units or squadrons while the Air Force sends individuals who are needed, said Lt. Col. Jere Pound, 20th Medical Group chief nurse and a native of Columbus, Ga.

She was on an Afghan Army base so she worked often with them as well as the U.S. Army, said Mitchum, who is a native of Granite Falls, N.C. There was also a German special forces unit and a Hungarian operational mentor liaison team. Her team mentored Afghan doctors. Occasionally, in surgeries and mass casualty incidents a German surgeon would assist.

Working together helped foster relationships with coalition forces and foreign nationals, she said.

"There were only two airmen on my base: my medic and me. But, we never felt as if we were outsiders. No one treated us differently. They welcomed and treated me as one of their own. We had the same mission, so it didn't matter what service you were from," she continued.

Mitchum, who was one of only four American females at the site, was part of the first group of Air Force augmentees to be placed with the Army's forward surgical team.

"Our overall mission was to be the combat surgical support for U.S. and coalition forces," Mitchum said. "We provided life-saving and stabilizing surgery to patients, and then flew them to a higher level of care. It is a totally different type of nursing."

The biggest difference between working state-side and working down range was the severity of injuries. In a clinic, she was in a controlled setting and most people come in for needs like the flu. In Afghanistan, she was a trauma nurse and performed life-saving surgery, she continued.

"Depending on where they go, troops are frequently in places where people are actively trying to harm them," Pound said. "They are potentially shot at or, in some cases, undergo rocket attacks."

Their patients included victims from gun shots, improvised explosive device blasts and suicide bombers.

"Every patient that came to us was a critical patient that needed life-saving surgery," said Mitchum. "I miss the type of patient care that I did. I miss knowing you just saved someone's life and that you were a part of a team that did that. The teamwork there is like nothing else I have ever experienced. What you go through day-in and day-out, you are not going to experience anywhere else. I loved it. Being able to help people was like an adrenaline rush."

"A lot of our patients were Afghans too," she said. "I believe we were able to contribute to winning the hearts and minds of the Afghans. They had confidence in us and knew we were there to help them. We helped their medical team as well, taught them how to care for not only their Army but also their local population."

According to Mitchum, they saw more than 350 trauma patients and only lost two patients. They also performed approximately 90 medical evacuations to a hospital in southwest Asia.

"I was able to fly in a medical evacuation helicopter," Mitchum said. "Being able to go and take U.S. troops to the hospital was one of the best moments of the deployment."

Joint tasking with the Army is a different experience for the Air Force medical personnel, said Pound. By getting out with the Army, she was able to experience a whole different world of medical care. She said she had a wonderful time doing it and it will serve her for the rest of her career.

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