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NEWS | Jan. 15, 2016

U.S. Army Reserve doctors save a life in Greece

By Lt. Col. Gilbert Buentello Multinational Battle Group - East (KFOR)

CAMP BONDSTEEL, Kosovo – Three U.S. Army Reserve doctors, attached to the 345th Combat Support Hospital out of Jacksonville, Florida, and deployed to Kosovo with Multinational Battle Group-East, were on a three-day pass when their military combat lifesaving skills and civilian medical careers came into play, Nov. 2, 2015, in Athens, Greece, when they encountered an immediate, life-threatening medical emergency.

U.S. Army Maj. David Whaley, a doctor of pharmacy from the 345th CSH, was in his hotel room for the night when they heard the loud crash outside.

“I rushed to the window just in time to see a sneaker fly up from the street below,” he said. “My two companions and I immediately left the room to see if anyone needed help.”

“Outside we saw people gathering around what looked to be a traffic accident,” explained Whaley. “We were not prepared for what we were about to discover.”

Whaley reached the accident scene first to discover that a motorcyclist had run into the side of a parked car, sending him flying off the bike. He had not been wearing a helmet, and as he lay bleeding on the street, it appeared that he was having trouble breathing. The victim attempted to stand on his own, only to collapse back onto the street.

“There was blood everywhere,” Whaley said. “Dr. Perez and I immediately began to evaluate the patient.”

Col. Edward Perez-Conde, the brigade surgeon from the 308th Civil Affairs Brigade, out of Chicago, Illinois, and Maj. Kirk Shimamoto, a doctor of dental surgery from the 7234th Medical Support Unit out of Vallejo, California, immediately started to support for what they believed would be just a few minutes until local first-responders arrived.

“We started by clearing the motorcyclist’s airway to give him the best opportunity to breathe,” said Perez-Conde. “We had to use napkins, brought to us by on-lookers, to clear the blood from the patient’s nose, mouth and ears, and then we immobilized his head in case he suffered a spinal injury.”

Whaley cut off the cyclist’s shirt and checked his chest for signs of further injury.

“The victim was pale and having trouble breathing,” said Whaley. “We thought he may have broken ribs causing his lungs to collapse.”

The doctors continued their assessment and discovered the victim also had a broken right arm and possibly two broken legs.

“He was bleeding from a large gash on the back of his head,” Whaley said. “After inspecting the accident scene, it appeared the cyclist’s head had crashed through the car’s side window before his body flipped over the vehicle.”

Local police arrived on the scene in a matter of minutes, but were not equipped to relieve the doctors from their work. Without emergency medical technicians or an ambulance in sight, the minutes of field-expedient medical support turned into hours. The U.S. Army trio became very concerned for their patient’s life, but continued to work to try and stop the bleeding.

“The cyclist’s breathing became more labored although his airway was clear,” said Perez-Conde. “At this point we discussed how to possibly treat a collapsed lung.”

The doctors considered using a pocket-knife to pierce the victim’s chest and insert half a ball-point pen between his ribs to allow either air or blood to escape through the opening.  

“However, we didn’t know how the police would react to a medical procedure using a pocket-knife, and we certainly didn’t want to go to jail,” said Whaley. “Fortunately for us, the victim’s breathing began to improve and the color returned to his face.”

Within a few minutes of his improvement, an ambulance finally arrived and the doctors assisted the EMTs with carefully placing the young man on a backboard and loading him into the vehicle. Two hours had passed since the Soldiers had arrived on the scene, and they were glad to be relieved and see the victim transported to a hospital.

“We are not sure of what happened to him [after that night] or how his injuries fared after receiving medical treatment,” said Perez-Conde. “In the moment, we were so focused on treating him and trying to save his life that we didn't even notice if people were taking pictures or local media was around.”

The U.S. Army Reserve Soldiers may not have been immediately recognized for their efforts, but they do have the satisfaction of knowing they were able to sustain a young man’s life for nearly two hours after a motorcycle accident almost took it away.

The officers said their field medical tactical training, a course designed to teach the basics of tactical lifesaving skills under realistic conditions, served them well in this situation.

The 345th CSH medics and hospital staff teach Soldiers assigned to MNBG-E to perform emergency trauma care such as inserting airway adjuncts and applying tourniquets. The goal is to instill in the Soldier an ability to instinctively react to combat casualties without freezing up.

“We want to give service members the skills necessary to treat their buddies and save lives when something goes wrong, on or off duty,” said Perez-Conde. “This accident proved just that.”

In a foreign country and without the medical tools or equipment available in their facility, they had the knowledge and the training to respond to a non-military victim’s needs. At the completion of their pass, the trio then returned to their duties as a part of MNBG-E’s Task Force Medical, which serves as the hospital for Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo.