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U.S. doctors save Italian patient hours from death

U.S. Air Force Capt. Melanie Gates, left, Capt. Nick McKenzie, and Capt. Richard Thorsted, all who are Special Operations Command Forward Northwest Africa ground surgical team members, gather for a photo at Nigerien Air Base 101, Niamey. The three doctors recently finished medical school and are serving their first deployment. They are deployed from Travis Air Force Base, California. (U.S. Air Force courtesy photo) U.S. Air Force Capt. Melanie Gates, left, Capt. Nick McKenzie, and Capt. Richard Thorsted, all who are Special Operations Command Forward Northwest Africa ground surgical team members, gather for a photo at Nigerien Air Base 101, Niamey. The three doctors recently finished medical school and are serving their first deployment. They are deployed from Travis Air Force Base, California. (U.S. Air Force courtesy photo)

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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 daughter.”

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 Africa.

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 stressful situation.

“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.”

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