Saving lives on the front line
IT'S not very often I am lost for words. But standing in a mirror image of the main hospital facility in Afghanistan's Camp Bastion, I am in total awe.
In front of me, an army of volunteers rehearse the vital skills dozens of British soldiers will rely upon to save their lives during the next few weeks and months.
Doctors, nurses, surgeons and anaesthetists are just some of the experts which make up the 250-strong contingent deployed with 243 Wessex Field Hospital to Afghanistan.
Like many British soldiers, these men and women will leave their homes and families, missing Christmas and birthdays. But this team sacrifice all that for one common purpose – to save lives.
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They have spent the last few weeks at the facility in York honing their technique alongside their American counterparts ahead of the impending deployment.
During their final hours of training, I spent the day watching them perform some of the most advanced medical techniques responsible for saving countless British service personnel, children and victims of IEDs or gunshot wounds.
Lieutenant Colonel Heather Saunders, second-in-command of the unit, guides me through the A&E department, operating theatres, wards and intensive care units.
"Here we will mimic what we will produce in the hospital," she said.
"Over these last two days we have been pushing out what we expect to see in Bastion – this facility brings it to life so much.
"We will see anything from diseases to amputation and non-battle injuries. One of the biggest things that degrades the force is diarrhoea and vomiting but we will also deal with road traffic accidents and sports injuries."
Private Ian Wright will be on his first deployment with the unit. The 35 year old, who works at the Royal Devon & Exeter Hospital as an operating department practitioner, will be leaving his fiancee and two sons behind.
"I've got mixed emotions at the minute," he said. "On the one hand I'm excited to go, but then I'm leaving my family behind.
"Hopefully this will be an overall positive experience.
"I joined the TA to deploy – these young soldiers are willing to put their lives on the line to protect our ways of life and I wanted to show respect and help them out, but hopefully they will never need me.
"Rather than doing a run for charity it was my contribution by donating my time to help.
"We've named one of the theatres the hurt locker because it's so hot in there. We have to put the heat up for paediatrics and burns patients.
"With young patients they lose heat a lot quicker, so we increase the heat to maintain their body temperature.
"The logic behind using it for the burns patients is to keep the wounds moist and wet. To do that we keep the patient warm.
"I am going to miss my family – they are brilliant and supportive."
Major Keith Watkins, 56, is a forensic nurse practitioner at Heavitree Police Station, in Exeter.
This will be the solider's third tour of duty.
"My role is to manage a lot of staff including all the nursing staff and paramedic staff," he said.
"I coordinate staff and resources, I ensure there are the right resources to make sure we can cope with the casualties coming through.
"We have to continuously move staff around the hospital from one area to another to make sure we can manage with the demand.
"It's always difficult being away from home and the family, but they are very understanding.
"I think the point we try to get across is that we always try to deliver the highest standard of care to the deployed troops.
"Because of the technology, training and the operations we carry out with the rest of the defence medical services, we manage to succeed in getting a 98 per cent survival rate for all injured personnel receiving treatment in Camp Bastion.
"It's probably one of the highest for anywhere in the world for trauma care and a figure the services are extremely proud of."
The unit's care doesn't only extend to coalition forces. Local nationals, Afghan National Forces and even the enemy are entitled to the first-class treatment at the facility.
"Everybody gets the same treatment, it doesn't matter who they are," said Lt Col Saunders, who also works as regional nurse advisor.
"It's amazing. It's incredibly clean and incredibly slick. It is quite a privilege to actually be allowed to work out there."
The majority of the unit deploy for a three-month tour taking control of Camp Bastion's Role 3 hospital as part of the UK Joint Forces Medical team. The facility takes the most seriously injured and wounded.