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Improvising to save lives, medics use unusual tools to do their job in combat

By Lisa Burgess, Stars and Stripes
Mideast edition, Thursday, February 1, 2007

Lisa Burgess / S&S
Cpt. Arne Oas, 35, a physician’s assistant, holds two "field expedient" tools used the
FOB Loyalty aid station team: a tuning fork (left), to diagnose fractures, and a "rescue hook," or seat-belt cutter, to quickly remove clothing and body armor.

Lisa Burgess / S&S
Cpt. Arne Oas shows both a standard stretcher - cut down to fit the interior of the vehicle - and a rigid backboard. The backboard normally lies flat in the back as it's toted around and then removed when needed.

BAGHDAD — The military calls them “field-expedient solutions.” In plain English, they’re alternate methods that work better under the pressure of combat.

Whatever you call it, war has a way of bringing out the creativity in troops — particularly when it comes to helping wounded buddies.

For example, here on the east side of Baghdad, just about every Humvee crew that’s logged heavy mission time on the mean streets has learned to strap a hard backboard on their vehicle in addition to or instead of the Army’s standard stretcher.

The standard-issue litters “do not fit inside up-armored Humvees, unless they are cut down,” Capt. Arne Oas, 35, a physician’s assistant from Haymarket, Va., who is with the 2nd Infantry Division’s Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 2nd Brigade, Special Troops Battalion at Forward Operating Base Loyalty.

“Maybe they fit inside regular Humvees at one time, but they don’t fit inside the ones we have now, with all the armor,” Oas said.

Even if the handles on the stretchers are sawed off — which most units know enough to do — “the patient bows up in a weird position” in the stretcher when it’s stuffed across the center console of the Humvee, Oas said.

The hard backboards, which are traditionally only used for patients suspected of having spinal injuries, are much shorter and fit inside the Humvee without modifications, he said.

Since they’re not flexible, they are also much more comfortable for patients, Oas said — not to mention the troops who may have them in their laps as they ride in the back with the patient, trying to keep pressure on wounds or just needing a quick ride back to the FOB in an emergency.

And in trauma medicine, every minute counts.

Another “field expedient” tool adopted by the aid station staff here at FOB Loyalty is the “rescue hook,” or seat-belt cutter, firefighters carry to get victims out of car crashes.

The rescue hooks are designed to cut through the tough, crash-resistant material that vehicle seat belts are made out of in seconds, when an explosion or fire in the vehicle is imminent.

That same hook makes quick work not just of clothing, but more importantly, of body armor, no matter how tangled, bloody, or mangled, Oas said.

The hooks work much more quickly than the standard trauma shears that come with every aid kit, he said.

“Two quick movements — zip, zip, one on each side — and that vest is off, so we can start working,” he said.

The rescue hooks, which cost about $25 each, are not standard Army equipment, so if medics and others like them, they usually have to purchase their own.

But Capt. Gerald “Wayne” Surrett, 35, brigade surgeon for the 2nd Infantry Division’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team, said he just placed an order to equip his entire team with the small devices.

One of the most unconventional tools at the FOB Loyalty aide station is the tuning fork, used to detect broken bones. The station has no X-ray machine.

If a vibrating tuning fork is placed in the right spot on the bone, right above a suspected fracture, the vibration will hurt, Oas said.

“You can tell by the way a patient reacts that the bone is broken,” Oas said. “He’ll go, ‘Oh, man, that hurts!’ If there’s nothing wrong, it doesn’t hurt at all.”

The tuning fork trick, which is about 90 percent accurate, sounds weird, but it is well-known to the special operations community, Surrett said.


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