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Navy corpsmen sharpen skills at Stroger

Friday, June 27, 2014
Chicago Tribune
by Geoff Ziezulewicz

Last Friday night in Stroger Hospital's trauma unit, Michael Soto stood at a woman's side, watching intently as a surgeon treated her for a leg injury, ready to help in any way he could.

The woman, whose leg had been fractured, writhed in pain on her bed as the surgeon drilled. Surrounded by first-world equipment and a team of personnel, Soto, a Navy hospital corpsman, was a world away from the battlefield, where he last had to deal with such gruesome trauma.

The Lake Villa native had deployed as a "doc" with a Marine Corps platoon to Afghanistan in 2011, where all he possessed to treat injuries on the battlefield were his training and the supplies he carried.

"Combat is, like, 'OK, here's your med bag, go take care of some Marines,'" the 24-year-old petty officer 2nd class said. "You don't have a physician, you don't have a nurse next to you. You're it."

Currently stationed stateside, Soto is part of a new partnership between Stroger and the Lovell Federal Health Care Center in North Chicago that exposes Navy medical personnel to the civilian side of trauma care.

Only the second such program in the country, the initiative allows sailors like Soto to work shifts at Stroger — the Cook County-run public hospital, which handles hundreds of trauma cases each month. There they learn about injury treatment at a level above the battlefield, while keeping their existing skills sharp. Hospital staff also benefit from the knowledge of those who have seen and treated war zone injuries firsthand.

Navy corpsmen perform a variety of jobs at facilities like Lovell or the adjacent Great Lakes Recruit Training Command, everything from lab technician to physical therapist and administrator. Those who deploy with combat units learn to stop the bleeding and open airways amid war zone chaos until a medevac chopper flies in to whisk a casualty away. But those are skills they rarely get to flex here.

Such "perishable skills" inevitably grow dull if they are not used regularly, according to Dr. Faran Bokhari, chairman of Stroger's pre-hospital services and trauma resuscitation division and an architect of the partnership. These skills must remain honed for whatever the future holds, he said. Soto and the other Navy personnel working at Stroger could again be deployed to Afghanistan, humanitarian missions or other tasks.

The corpsmen are treated as a hybrid of a senior medical student, a nurse and a paramedic during the program, Stroger officials said.

"Some of them are very experienced," Bokhari said. "They're not green medical students out of la-la land. They've seen the blood and guts."

Stroger's civilian staff benefits from hearing about war zone trauma care and cases not regularly seen at Chicago hospitals, according to Dr. Andrew Dennis, a Stroger trauma surgeon and chair of the pre-hospital and emergency services division.

"We don't see many explosive injuries," Dennis said. "We don't see that many high-velocity rifle injuries, where they do. It is certainly great to have that expertise come back from the military theater and bring back those lessons in education to us."

The program, just a few months old, will also be useful training for Navy personnel who have not deployed, according to Lt. Cmdr. Stan Hovell, a Navy nurse who oversees staff training at Lovell and is wrapping up his own Stroger rotation. A corpsman hesitating at the first sight of blood in a deployed environment could prove costly, he said.

"It's important to get them this kind of training here, so they can see how to stop that bleeding and save that life," Hovell said. "They pick up those skills and carry it back to the Navy."

Lovell's proximity to Cook County, and the fact that the county has one of the country's highest rates of "penetrating injuries" like gunshot wounds and stabbings, made it an ideal partner for the Navy, said Dr. Jared Bernard, a lieutenant commander and surgeon who helps run the program from the Navy side.

While the similarities between Stroger staff and Navy medical personnel may not be immediately apparent, trauma treatment involves the same adrenaline-filled, regimented protocols in Chicago as it does in a military hospital in Afghanistan, he said.

Such care in a war zone just involves less technology and other first-world amenities, said Bernard, 37, an Afghanistan veteran who will work one week a month as a surgeon at Stroger during his three-year assignment at Lovell. Civilian trauma care often flows from war zone innovation, he said, with everything from tourniquets to helicopter transports originating out of battlefield necessity.

At Stroger, the corpsmen generally work 12-hour shifts, during which they see a variety of wounded come and go. Last Friday night they helped treat a man struck with a baseball bat and another who came in stabbed and bloody. The corpsmen looked like any other civilian staff member and interacted easily and efficiently with their civilian counterparts.

"Nice job, corpsman," Stroger nurse Lisa Biancalana-Marsh said to one of them as staff crowded around an injured man they had helped treat.

Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Dwight Koontz stood with fellow corpsman Soto at the side of the woman with the injured leg, telling her "it's almost over" as the surgeon worked on her.

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