BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan --
The noise of combat surrounds him. He’s hurting. He’s bloodied and he’s confused. Next thing he knows, he looks up and sees the flag. In that moment in time, he knows he’s going to be safe and he’s going to see his family again. He knew he was at the Craig Joint Theater Hospital at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan.
“That flag is a huge symbol for our patients,” said Col. Robert York, 455th Expeditionary Medical Group commander. “It’s a huge symbol for us too. It brings a huge sense of pride for me and this facility. When our patients see that flag they know that they are safe and they know they are going to get the world’s best health care right here in Afghanistan.”
This symbol of protection and pride is a 30 foot by 50 foot flag hanging above what is known as “Warrior’s Way,” which is along the path the patient takes to get life-saving medical care.
The path of the patient is the flow of the patient from crossing the gates to Craig Joint Theater Hospital through all levels of care and then ultimately out to the aircraft to fly to Landstuhl, Germany for definitive care.
Once patients land at Bagram Airfield, before even entering the hospital, they are thoroughly assessed, administratively in-processed and are checked for any explosive ordnance or weapons.
They are immediately taken into the trauma center to be rapidly assessed and resuscitated, either with blood or fluid products, and provided any emergency types of procedures, such as thoracotomies.
While in the trauma bay patients will receive an initial evaluation then they will either receive a CT scan, or be moved directly to the operating room, depending on the injuries and patient condition.
After receiving life-saving care, U.S. and Coalition members are flown to Landstuhl or the United States within 24-72 hours by aeromedical evacuation or a critical care air transportation team.
The 455th EMDG is the medical component of Task Force Medical-Afghanistan, providing combat medical services and support to U.S. and coalition forces throughout Afghanistan.
Additionally, they serve as hub for all aeromedical evacuation missions within the Combined Joint Operations Area-Afghanistan.
“We are the go-to place for patients,” York said. “This is the U.S. Central Command’s biggest, ‘baddest,’ most capable medical operation center in the entire [area of responsibility].”
With a 99.3-percent survival rate, the hospital staff have reason to be proud.
For Lt. Col. (Dr.) Valerie Sams, 455th EMDG trauma medical director, also known as the trauma czar, her goal is to keep the statistic level, or even get it to 100-percent.
As the trauma czar, Sams is responsible for coordinating all of the patient’s treatments, as well as making the final decision of their care.
Sams doesn’t take on all of this pressure on her own. She looks to every specialty doctor available to her patients before coming to a decision, even if it is a difficult one.
“We have a pretty tremendous team here,” Sams said. “I am honestly surprised how hard people work in their jobs every day.”
Sams noted her medical staff comes from all different specialties, yet step outside of their comfort zones to make sure the mission gets done.
“We have nurses who come from labor and delivery or technical staff that come from outpatient clinics, and they come here and work in an environment they are not entirely used to,” Sams added. “They step up to the plate, and that’s really what makes our success a reality.”
For both York and Sams, working at the hospital in their respective positions has reinforced years of hard work and dedication in their profession.
York joined the Air Force hoping to “effect change and improve people’s lives downrange.” Sams knew at a young she wanted to be a doctor, and being a surgeon fell into all of her expectations.
“I think there is no better way to connect to the mission than to be here to take care of those who are putting their lives on the line,” Sams said. “Somebody has to be there to either put the pieces back together or to just pick up the pieces.”
York and Sams couldn’t think of a better job than what they are doing right now.
“This is the ‘away game,’ and not only do I believe that, but for me this is the ‘Super Bowl,’ York said. “This is the best job in the world. I’m doing this so hopefully my kids don’t have to someday do it."