As combat operations in Helmand Province increase this summer, the British hospital at Camp Bastion will be pushed to its limits. Reporter Paul Bradley joined Kings Heath medics to see first hand what sort of treatment patients are receiving
A dust-swept lunar scape is punctuated by the cogs of war in the middle of lawless Helmand Province.
Only a few tiny settlements, occupied by Afghan farmers trying to avoid fighting in the north of the region, are scattered around the £1 billion British base known as Camp Bastion.
At the heart of the huge facility is the hospital, which is currently being run by the Territorial Army unit Kings Heath 202 Field Hospital.
It is here that casualties from all nations are brought to receive emergency medical treatment.
But don’t be fooled – this is no ramshackle tent facility, cobbled together as a stop gap before patients can be flown back to specialist facilities such as those at Selly Oak Hospital.
The medical unit has an Emergency Department that has already coped with up to nine serious trauma patients at once.
X-rays are taken within a matter of minutes and a consultant radiologist is on hand to interpret the results within a matter of seconds.
Surgeons are on standby in the theatres, which have the space and capability to operate on four casualties at once.
A short walk down the corridor and you see the intensive care unit with all the same life saving machinery that you would expect in any NHS hospital.
And when patients are recovering they are taken to the wards which are staffed by friendly, warm-hearted nurses with a genuine passion for their job.
Incredibly, there are practically no problems with infections and MRSA.
This is largely due to an obsession with cleanliness and procedure, but also to the nature of the treatment the casualties receive. Major Moira Kane, head nurse in the Emergency Department, said: “You have to remember that the guys out there could be crawling through ditches of animal and human excrement.
“If they are shot the wound can suck in all kinds of nasty things from the air as well as bits of clothes and dust.
“So as soon as a soldier is hurt the combat medics on the ground will give him a dose of antibiotics to fight the infection.
“We’ll continue to monitor that on the helicopter ride into the hospital and then during the time they are here. But the nature of our job means the guys will be home within a matter of days if they need specialist treatment.
“They could be at Selly Oak for a matter of months and that is when the battle of infection really begins.”
The job of medical staff at the hospital is to stabilise patients so they can be flown to the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine at Selly Oak Hospital.
Camp Bastion is tasked with “saving lives, limbs and eyesight”.
The operation is appropriately slick.
Combat medics in the field are trained to “pack” wounds, administer pain killing drugs, and apply tourniquets.
The helicopter Medical Emergency Response Team, which has two paramedics, a nurse and an anaesthetist on board, then springs into action.
The Brits are the only flying doctors who routinely carry blood supplies to enable them to carry out blood transfusions while in the air.
Getting oxygen flowing around the body at as early a stage as possible is crucial to the survival rates.
Once at the hospital, patients will be assessed and those needing urgent surgery will be rushed into theatre.
Lieutenant Colonel Duncan Phimister, a retired chief executive at Nuneaton’s George Eliot Hospital, said: “The air evacuation facilities we have here are just unbelievable. From the battlefield to the hospital and then back to Britain, a patient can be transported in under 24 hours. There’s no waiting or queueing or competition for operations like their is in the NHS.
“Nearly all the operations are emergencies so they can be treated immediately.
“Once the patients have gone home it is important that we close the loop.
“Every Thursday we have a live video conference with Selly Oak and the rehab facility at Headley Court in Surrey.
“We need to know that what we have done this end has had the desired effect.”
The hospital does not just deal with serious trauma patients.
The dentist’s surgery is always busy with routine appointments. And when it’s not, the dental surgeon will take the pressure off the main surgeons by sewing ears back on to faces and reconstructing teeth and jaws.
Although British soldiers have protection from their helmet and body armour, there is practically nothing that protects their teeth, mouths and lower face.
A fully stocked pharmacy is also in place and attached to the hospital is a physiotherapy unit where troops go to regain strength after sprains, strains and muscle injuries.
And the staff do more than treat the patients in some cases too.
Many donate their blood platelets, via a special machine, which when given to a patient, coagulates their blood and stops them losing it.
Lt Col Phimister said; “It gives the guys out there a lot of confidence to know that they will be extremely well looked after if they are hurt.
“We do everything we can, with no regards to expense, to get our boys fit and well and back on their feet again.”