Language Barrier No Obstacle for Deployed Doctors

August 01, 2018

A worldwide average of 1.2 million people die from vehicle accidents each year. Deployed service members from multiple nations collaborated here recently to prevent adding another death to this statistic.

An Italian civilian woman was involved in a nearly fatal car accident adjacent to Nigerien Air Base 101 here. She likely would have died at the civilian hospital here if it weren’t for the efforts of service members from the U.S., Canada, France, Germany and Italy, according to Air Force Lt. Col. Kyle Korver, commander of the 768th Expeditionary Air Base Squadron.

“When we were notified by the Italians of this particular incident, we basically started calling and coordinating with them on how we could possibly help,” Korver said.

A male passenger was also in the car during the accident. Nigerien ambulance services rushed both patients to the civilian hospital here. Due to the extent of the woman’s injuries, she needed to be transported to a more advanced medical facility. That’s where the doctors and staff of Special Operations Command Forward North and West Africa’s Ground Surgical Team, and the airmen at Air Base 101 worked together to help save a life.

International Intervention

“Once we found out they intended to move the individuals and were trying to get them airlifted somewhere else, [Italian leaders] approached our ground surgical team through Special Operations Command Africa channels and actually asked if this patient in particular, who was the worst off of the two, could come over here for a lifesaving surgery,” Korver said.

The Italians sought medical advice from the U.S. ground surgical team, which recommended treatment before the woman was airlifted to another hospital.

“There were findings on the CT scan that indicated there were likely injuries that would require surgical care [gas and fluid in the abdomen],” said Air Force Capt. Nicholas McKenzie, the ground surgical team general surgeon for Special Operations Command Forward North and West Africa.

Nigerien doctors in Niamey had performed the CT scan roughly 20 hours before the patient arrived at Air Base 101.

“While difficult to quantify survival accurately, given the delay in recognition, the patient had injuries that would be fatal from abdominal sepsis,” McKenzie said. “We felt very strongly she would not survive a flight to receive care.”

“You literally had medical personnel from five different countries all coordinating on the care of this patient,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Justin Tingey, a flight doctor with the 768th EABS.

Multilingual Care

An Italian doctor coordinated the patient’s transfer from the hospital to Air Base 101, and then on to her final destination at a hospital in Senegal. The doctor spoke three languages in an effort to synchronize information sharing with French, Nigeriens, Italians, Senegalese, Germans and Americans.

“The French and Germans were actually brought in because the French were integral to coordinating a lot of the activities that went on here,” Tingey said. “The Germans — they actually were a backup plan to get the patient out of here if the original plan did not work as far as bringing a civilian in to perform an aeromedical evacuation.”

Additionally, the medical specialists on the German team were integral to consultations on all aspects of the patient care, he said.

The woman is back in Italy and on the road to recovery, according to Air Base 101’s Italian team. As a whole, the event highlights the capability U.S. forces can provide to Niger and the surrounding region when needed, Korver said.

“My personal takeaway is that it is very encouraging just to know the medical posture that we have here,” he said. “When we’re able to transfer a patient from an emergency room [intensive care unit] situation to come to an expeditionary base and give them life-sustaining care, and to know that we have that level of medical capacity here, it’s pretty impressive.”