2018-08-09 11:31:23 UTC
NIAMEY, Niger - What began as a normal day eventually became an 18-hour
sequence of events never to be forgotten.
Doctors and staff of Special Operations Command Forward (SOCFWD) - North and
West Africa's Ground Surgical Team (GST), a tenant unit assigned to Nigerien
Air Base 101, Niger, were notified that an Italian woman recently suffered
life-threatening injuries that required their attention.
The Italian woman was originally receiving care at a local hospital in
Niamey when the GST was contacted by Italian military officials because the
local hospital didn't have the resources needed to save the patient's life.
When U.S. Air Force doctors from SOCFWD - North and West Africa's GST
initially reviewed the computed tomography, or CT scans, they immediately
knew there was more serious damage than what was reported as only a liver
bleed by the local hospital.
"Upon reviewing the CT scans, there was also evidence of free air in the
abdomen, concerning for a small bowel injury," said U.S. Air Force Capt.
Melanie Gates, GST emergency medical physician. "When the patient arrived,
her skin was white and she was in serious pain with minimal responsiveness.
Her vitals were much worse than previously reported."
The patient had a fever, a very high heart rate and low oxygen levels.
"First thoughts upon seeing patient . she wasn't doing well," said U.S. Air
Force Capt. Richard Thorsted, GST anesthesiologist. "She arrived to us in
critical condition with a high fever."
Thorsted and other GST members agreed that emergency surgery would be
needed. Immediately, the team directed the 768th Expeditionary Air Base
Squadron medical team to set up a walking blood bank. Additionally, they
coordinated with various units and agencies from the 768th EABS, and
Italian, French and German military forces to set up airlift and
transportation to a larger medical facility in Senegal.
The patient is currently in good condition and recovering from her injuries
in Naples, Italy, according to the GST staff.
"I'm especially thankful for the total team effort to do what is right, and
not to let bureaucratic issues delay critical care," said Air Force Capt.
Nick McKenzie, GST general surgeon. "This was somebody's mother, or wife, or
McKenzie, Thorsted, and Gates, all of whom recently graduated from medical
school and finished their residency programs, credit their success to a
rigorous military training program they attended prior to deploying to
They all had run through clinical scenarios and situations to be able to
work in austere conditions.
"Our training kicked in. We all knew our roles and worked well together,"
Gates said. "I believe our training was crucial for our development as a
team and ability to handle situations like this."
Gates also said trust was crucial in the team's ability to work in a
"I know that our ICU nurse, Capt. Jessica Bertke can trouble shoot any of
our equipment and is the glue that holds our team together," Gates
explained. "I know that our anesthesiologist, Capt. Richard Thorsted, is
meticulous at his job and is already steps ahead when problems arise. I know
that our surgeon, Capt Nicholas McKenzie, has operated in much more austere
conditions and would trust him to operate on my own family."
Gates also mentioned that their scrub tech, Air Force Senior Airman Joshua
Rios, has worked closely with McKenzie and can predict what he will need.
"I know that Master Sergeant Lou Campbell is always behind the scenes
advocating not only for the patient and dealing with medivac logistics, but
advocating for our team," Gates said.
McKenzie said the support from the SOCFWD-NWA and air operating base staff
in supporting his team's decisions was one of the most crucial elements to
his team's success. He also thanked the Italian military doctor Valantina Di
Nitto, who translated information regarding the patient into French, German,
English, and Italian for the multinational military units at Air Base 101.
"My takeaway is personally knowing that we did something to help another
human being," Thorsted said. "There is an inner peace knowing you've done
your best and you made an impact in someone's life."