Martin C. Evans

For Medical Personnel in Wartime, no Christmas Break

In Uncategorized on December 29, 2010 at 11:18 am

Landstuhl, GERMANY – America’s two armed conflicts in the Persian Gulf region have not provided a Christmas break for America’s military. Certainly not in Afghanistan’s bloody Helmand province, where at least five Marines alone were killed in the ten days leading to Christmas. And certainly not here, at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, where Airman 1st Class Wilfredo Ortiz was among soldiers from Long Island who spent the holiday season trying to save the lives of war wounded GIs.

Wilfredo Ortiz, 20. The Landstuhl trauma center performs more than 30 surgeries per day, including amputations for GIs wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan

Ortiz, a 20-year-old soldier from Valley Stream, works as a weekend shift leader for surgical technicians at this trauma facility, the U.S. military’s primary medical center for troops wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Treating war casualties

The 149-bed facility 100 miles southwest of Frankfurt, Germany – the largest American hospital outside the United States – became a trauma center in 2004 to care for the growing number of war-related injuries. Since then, medical personnel have treated more than 13,000 combat casualties, including scores from Long Island.

Among them was Army Cpl. Christopher Levi, a former 10th Mountain Division soldier from Holbrook who lost his legs when a roadside bomb exploded in Afghanistan in March of 2008.

As a surgical technician, Ortiz prepares the operating room. He sets out surgical tools, helps position patients on the operating table and assists surgeons as they work.

“It won’t ruin my Christmas, because it’s my job and I love my job. But you never really want to see this,” Ortiz said last week as two soldiers rushed from Afghanistan were prepared for emergency surgery in adjacent operating rooms.

“Sometimes they still have mud in their wounds,” Ortiz said. “You’ll see rocks, you’ll see shrapnel, wood, pretty much anything that flies.”

In an operating room to Ortiz’s left, doctors had begun working on a soldier who had lost limbs but survived an explosion. Officials here say the number of those types of injuries has spiked with the increase in foot patrols that have accompanied the surge of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Flaps of skin and muscle hung from the soldier’s right leg, which had been shorn off about 6 inches above the knee.

He also had lost the lower part of his left leg, where jagged bone protruded from wounded flesh. His left arm and hand had also been seriously injured. Hundreds of particles from the blast, each potentially infectious, riddled his flesh.

The soldier in the operating room to Ortiz’s right looked almost serene, like a man who had fallen asleep. A medical staffer pulled the man’s jaw open and wiggled a breathing tube into his throat. Another tube had been inserted through his side to carry away waste from his injured lower intestine.

Like the soldier in the adjoining operating room, both of his legs had also been shorn off in this, the 10th holiday season U.S. troops have been fighting in Afghanistan.

Volunteering for duty

“Christmas is a family holiday, so I volunteered to work Christmas,” said Ortiz, who is part of a 3,000-member hospital staff that, according to Landstuhl officials, averages 32 surgeries a day. “But I didn’t volunteer for New Year’s. New Year’s is a single man’s holiday.”

Ortiz’s enlistment ends March 3, 2015, the day he turns 25. He said he intends to move to New York City.

Specialist Russell Kaiser Jr., 30, an Army medic, also is spending part of the holiday season on duty at Landstuhl.

Had he been home, the Brooklyn native said, he would have gathered with family – including an uncle from Rockville Centre – at the Staten Island home of an aunt.

“It’s really hard being away from family,” said Kaiser, who is single. “You get used to family traditions you don’t even know you miss until you’re not home to take part in them.”

Someone’s child

Petty Officer Gloriela Robinson, 59, a Navy reservist from Levittown who works as a nurse at Landstuhl, planned to spend Christmas visiting patients as a USO volunteer.

Robinson, who when not on active duty is a licensed practical nurse at the Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center, said the mostly routine care provided at Northport did not prepare her for the horrific nature of blast wounds and other war trauma.

“You know about the war, but it really doesn’t touch you until you’re here,” Robinson, 59, said as she wept.

“The amputees really get me. I feel for them because I could be their mother. What’s going to happen to them once they go home?”

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