Surgery in the snow: Life-saving specialists hone their skills

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. LeAnne Withrow
  • 139th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment
Six U.S. Air Force officers head for an unassuming tan tent that breaks the otherwise monochrome landscape of a runway at the edge of Nome, Alaska. Each Airman pulls a nondescript black duffel with them, roughly the size of a large piece of airline luggage.

The 633rd Medical Group, Air Force Combat Command, Ground Surgical Team, the structure they approach, and its accompanying portable generator represent a critical battlefield capability - mobile surgery.

The purpose of the exercise today [is] to test the capabilities of the GST in an arctic environment," said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Christopher Mahoney 96th Surgical Operations Squadron, out of Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. "For the last two decades, we've been operating primarily in hot environments which had different considerations for patient care, equipment, [and] personnel usage."

This six-person crew can fulfill a critical medical function that has historically represented challenges to militaries worldwide: how to get battlefield casualties under the care of a surgical team in the shortest time possible. On the battlefield, the stakes are high, but here the GST is participating in the sprawling, multinational and multicomponent training exercise, Arctic Eagle-Patriot 2022.

The crew, who met each other just days before, were thrust into their training scenario. Providing emergency care out of the portable surgical suite is one of the many pieces of technology evaluated for use in the Arctic throughout the exercise. Their scenario involves two fighter pilots with complex injuries brought into the surgical suite shortly after they set up.

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Erik DeSoucy, Surgical Operations Squadron at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, is one of the individuals evaluating the equipment's success and the process at large, briefs the team.

"What we did today was demonstrate their capabilities," said DeSoucy. "To take care of, in this case, two injured pilots that had ejected out of their aircraft and had sustained life-threatening injuries."

After a very short in-briefing, the simulation kicks off and the team transforms the empty tent into a functioning medical facility. Medicine, monitors, and machinery are operational, and they receive their first patient in less than half an hour.

"We are super lucky," said U.S. Air Force Maj. Madison Lashley, surgeon, 633rd Medical Group, Air Force Combat Command, Ground Surgical Team. "The six of us have just met, and they've been extremely easy to communicate with, extremely easy to assign roles with, just real easy to work with and get along with and provide patient care with."

Activity hums inside the tent while their patients - a pair of mannequins - are evaluated, treated, operated upon, and then ultimately evacuated to a notional higher level of care.

"We've already started gathering information on how our equipment is performing, and I think our team is also taking away from this some of the physical constraints of operating in this environment," said DeSoucy.

The group breaks into smiles as the exercise ends, and the team goes through an in-depth after-action review to capture the things that went right and the areas requiring additional training. The crew repacks the bags and departs, but the work is far from over.

"It's been great," said Lashley. "I have felt like one big team. I hope everybody has felt like one big team."

The Air Force and the Department of Defense work tirelessly to improve and refine a higher standard of care, a healthier and safer Air Force and U.S. military, and plenty of data to keep moving forward.