Sunday, July 26, 2009
By Sean Rayment, Defence Correspondent
Every morning – usually just after 7am – the pager strapped to her waist bleeps into life, warning the trauma team at the British Army’s field hospital in Helmand that a severely injured patient is inbound on a Chinook helicopter
The wounded are often young soldiers, usually the victims of an improvised explosive device (IED), with one or more of their limbs missing.
In recent weeks the casualty flow has been unrelenting, as British and Nato troops involved in Operation Panchai Palang – meaning Panther’s Claw – battle with the Taliban in central Helmand. Since the start of this month, 21 soldiers have been killed and dozens more have sustained life-changing injuries.
On Thursday, the MoD is due to publish new casualty figures which will reveal the number of soldiers killed during the first half of this month. It will include those injured on July 10, the worst single day for British forces so far. In one 24-hour period eight soldiers were killed and more than 30 were wounded, some severely, in a variety of attacks around the province.
While front-line troops are tackling the Taliban with bullet and bayonet, back in the safety of Camp Bastion, medics are waging a different but equally important daily battle: trying to keep alive soldiers whose injuries are so severe that just a few years ago they would have proved fatal.
Speaking from the field hospital in Camp Bastion, Surg Cdr Stapley told The Sunday Telegraph: “The demands are constant. Every day, we usually have a trauma call in the morning, first thing, that is when we are notified a casualty is coming in. Casualties are a daily occurrence, sometimes two, three, four times a day.”
The Royal Navy surgeon, who has completed three tours of Iraq and two in Afghanistan, says the injuries now being sustained by the troops are “horrific”.
“The injuries have become more severe than when I was here first, in 2007,” she said. “Each one is horrific but my experience helps me deal with them both professionally and psychologically. The injuries can be shocking but your main aim is to treat the patient so you have to put that behind you and you have to treat the patient and hopefully they will survive.”
In the past 10 days more than 157 people have been treated at the hospital for conditions ranging from battle shock and heat exhaustion to amputations and bullet wounds.
Mass casualty events are now common. Surg Cdr Stapley recalls that she worked for 33 hours over a 35-hour period shortly after arriving in Afghanistan five weeks ago. “We were having continuous casualties coming in every few hours and some of those required immediate surgery. Events like that are not unusual here, the time went actually very quickly – you do get use to working long hours.”
Surg Cdr Stapley’s decisions often mean the difference between life and death. If the victim’s limbs are badly damaged, she has to decide, and quickly, whether or not the arm and leg can be saved. “In many cases that decision has already been made for you because you are often dealing with a traumatic amputation,” said the orthopaedic surgeon who joined the Royal Navy in 1987.
Much has changed since 2007, when Surg Cdr Stapley, who has a long-term partner, first arrived in Helmand. Then the medical centre was housed in a tent. Today troops are treated by medics from Britain, Denmark and the United States in an air-conditioned field hospital with eight intensive care beds and two wards that can treat 25 patients.
The nature of the fighting in Helmand has also changed in that time.
Gone are the pitched battles with the Taliban which typified combat between 2006 and 2008, these days troops are targeted by suicide bombers and booby traps.
Those who survive are often left crippled, blind or brain damaged. Since 2006, 52 servicemen and women have lost one or more limbs, six have been paralysed and another seven have lost the use of one or both eyes.
Hundreds more have sustained lesser injuries and have often returned to the battlefield days, some times hours, later. Treatment at the medical centre is not restricted to members of Nato. The Afghan national army and police are also treated, as are civilians who get caught up in the fighting.
“We treat the Taliban as well, if required. The Taliban are just normal people. Many of them are grateful, many are scared. I don’t know what they have been told [about] what might happen in one of our hospitals but we treat every patient the same and to the best of our abilities and I think they are surprised that they get such treatment, and I hope they take that message with them.”
Away from the blood and gore of the operating theatre, Surg Cdr Stapley relaxes by going to the gym, eating or reading a book. “But most of all I try and sleep – that’s pretty important.”