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Canadian nurse partnered with USAF to save lives in Afghanistan

Maj. Steven Pirie, a Canadian Armed Forces nurse assigned to a Joint Theater Trauma System Team at Kandahar Air Base, Afghanistan, prepares to depart the base to deliver point-of-injury training to medics in the field. Pirie served with Air Force medics, helping coordinate care across coalition forces.  (Courtesy photo)

Maj. Steven Pirie, a Canadian Armed Forces nurse assigned to a Joint Theater Trauma System Team at Kandahar Air Base, Afghanistan, prepares to depart the base to deliver point-of-injury training to medics in the field. Pirie served with Air Force medics, helping coordinate care across coalition forces. (Courtesy photo)

FALLS CHURCH, Va. -- Maj. Steven Pirie was assisting with brain surgery on a young Afghan girl at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, when the early alert siren went off. An enemy rocket was closing in.

Pirie, a Canadian Armed Forces nurse, and the neurosurgeon he was assisting, had to choose a course of action. They could move into a bombproof shelter, lie prone on the plywood floor of the surgical room, or continue the surgery. Halting the procedure risked the girl’s life.

They chose to stay and continue the procedure.

“You stand there,” recalled Pirie, “and you hope the rockets land somewhere else.”

That time it did. Pirie’s team was able to complete the surgery. The Afghan girl recovered and transferred to a nearby Red Cross hospital.

Pirie, from Waterloo, Ontario, served in Afghanistan from October 2009 to May 2010 with the Joint Theater Trauma System, working with Air Force Medical Service medics and other allies. He and his team reviewed all in-country casualties and deaths, seeking trends and efficiencies to deliver the right care to the right patient at the right time.

Pirie shared his duties with several U.S. Air Force nurses.

“We took shifts to cover all trauma patients,” said Pirie. “I had trained together with Air Force nurses in San Antonio, Texas. Despite any cultural differences, we spoke the same technical language.”

He also worked with AFMS staffers, surgeons, blood services officers, and respiratory services lab techs.

“It was a pretty amazing program,” said Pirie. “Some of the American nurses really provided me with experience and mentorship.”

JTTS teams also included British and Danish members who came from different branches, all headed by a surgeon in charge.

“The trauma teams were blended,” said Pirie. “We all had similar backgrounds, education, and values in combat casualty care. No matter what trauma team was formed, it had very common baseline activity.”

When Canada Day rolled around on 1 July, Pirie got together with other Canadian service members to enjoy some hamburgers, hot dogs, and ball hockey on a concrete rink.

Despite the rare breaks for fun, Pirie knew he was in a war zone. He worried about ambushes or IEDs every time he left the base to instruct point-of-injury medics. Insurgents fired rockets at Kandahar Air Base at least 25 times during his tour. Sometimes rockets struck multiple times per day.

“No rockets ever landed close to me, but sirens would wail and everyone had to either assume the prone position or head to a hardened shelter,” said Pirie. “We always left somebody with the patients.”

When his tour ended, Pirie returned home, where he was assigned to Canadian Forces Base Borden, north of Toronto. Today he is a lieutenant colonel, commanding the 2 Field Ambulance, one of the regular army’s three close-support medical field battalions.

Looking back at his tour, Pirie appreciates his American partners.

“The U.S. Air Force nursing officers were nothing short of outstanding to work with,” said Pirie. “They were passionate about ensuring high quality care to not only U.S. Service personnel but also all coalition casualties.”
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