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Understanding Ground Surgical Teams

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Joseph Morgan
  • 124th Fighter Wing
The Air National Guard’s first fully self-contained ground surgical team is made up of six Airmen from the Idaho ANG’s 124th Medical Group. Historically, other medical units have created their GSTs by utilizing members from across the ANG. But what does a GST do?

“The ground surgical team provides damage control, resuscitation and surgery in an austere environment,” said 1st Lt. Alexis Sutherlin, the GST’s medical services corpsman. “There are six of us on the team, which includes an emergency room doctor, critical care nurse, surgeon, surgical tech, a MSC and a certified registered nurse’s assistant/anesthesiologist.”

According to Lt. Col. Greg Stiller, a physician with the 124th MDG, studies indicate that when an individual in a combat environment is injured, getting critical care within the first hour exponentially increases the person’s chances of survival.

“Our goal is to stop the bleeding,” said Stiller. “And instead of using tourniquets, we can perform an actual surgery in the field, allowing us to go internally and stop the bleeding. In addition to this, we can do damage control resuscitation and administer blood to the patient and resuscitate them to restore their body back to relative normalcy.”

Short of putting a hospital closer to a battlefield, needed care is provided as these highly specialized, compact ground surgical teams are able to quickly mobilize to hostile environments.

“You can put a hospital really far forward, which is not feasible, or you could have a hospital unit that is really far forward,” said Stiller. “The ultimate goal is that if you go out on a high-risk mission and are able to have a medical team a couple minutes away … if you get injured, your survivability goes up.”

All six members of the GST have extensive experience, or are practicing medical professionals, in the civilian sector treating patients with injuries similar to that of battlefield wounds.

“Being involved in trauma centers and actually seeing that urgency, with bringing in patients and being comfortable in that environment, has helped me tremendously in my training,” said Sutherlin, who’s had experience in civilian trauma centers. “When we perform deployment scenarios where they’re kicking down our door, bringing in multiple patients at a time, there’s a lot going on. Being able to have that calmness and also that urgency to function at the highest level has really helped.”

According to Stiller, environmental, logistical and material restrictions that make up the difference between a suburban, civilian hospital and battlefield emergency room are offset by being confident in the medical skill-set necessary to perform the job at the highest level.

The logistics of deploying a mobile surgical unit to a potentially hostile environment are substantial, and many considerations have to be made in the planning outside of the GSTs usual medical training and preparation.

“Are we going to have power?” said Sutherlin. “Will we have lights? What will the building look like? Are we going to be in a tent? We really could be anywhere, and those are many of the questions we have to ask. Once we can answer those questions, we come together as a team and pack our bags accordingly.”

This role had been previously filled by the U.S. Army’s forward surgical team. What differentiates GSTs from FSTs is their size, autonomy and mobility. GSTs are smaller and, because of this, more flexible. Additionally, they aren’t attached to another unit or battalion and are able to be more readily tasked. While FSTs still play a part in battlefield surgical response, GSTs act as a more transplantable and more quickly accessible means of support.

“This is only damage control,” said Stiller. “For everybody out in the field, our ultimate goal is give them the best chance of surviving so that they can get to the next step of care. That’s our whole focus – to give the earliest, highest level of care they can get.”

The 124th MDG is currently preparing to deploy in support of operations in Southwest Asia.