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Friday, May 7

Medics suffer as they care for war's wounded

By Deborah Funk | Army Times

LANDSTHUL, Germany - Air Force Capt. Randy Dickerson's voice cracks when he describes the two burn patients he cared for on the military flight from Baghdad to Ramstein Air Base, Germany.

The soldiers were in a fuel truck when a bomb exploded, burning one over virtually his entire body. When they landed in Germany, the soldier with the lesser burns told Dickerson to first tend to his buddy, who would later die from his injuries.

"That's been the hardest one," said Dickerson, a nurse with the 911th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, based in Pittsburgh.

He put a finger to his lip and looked away. "The young guy was 26 years old,'' he said, ``from Indiana, wasn't married yet, had his whole life ahead of him.''

He paused again. "It kind of represents the whole deployment for us, what we're here for."

Military medical workers are dedicated to caring for sick and wounded troops deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq. But the work takes an emotional toll.

"You go in and see injured men and women who have lost arms and legs and they're asking you how are they going to teach their 3-year-old to play golf, how they're going to go on in life," said Army Lt. Col. Sally Harvey, chief of psychology services at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.

"We are all going to leave here different from when we arrived,'' Harvey said.

``As with so many events in life, it is the perspective that we place on the event that will define the experience. If folks feel that they contributed, were valued, made a difference, then I believe that they will have more resilience."

Last fall, Harvey initiated meetings and counseling with staff at Landstuhl to prevent and treat compassion fatigue, a type of emotional, spiritual or physical exhaustion that can affect emergency and health care workers.

Compassion fatigue may cause a change in sleeping patterns and an increase in alcohol use, experts say. Some also may become withdrawn or irritable or lose interest in things they once enjoyed. Exercise, sleep, interacting with positive people and simply talking to others can help.

About 1,000 staffers have been counseled at the hospital, and officials do group briefings as well as informal talks with staff as they walk the wards. Chaplains also offer support.

Everyone is vulnerable to such feelings, but reservists may be more likely to have difficulty, Harvey said. They aren't in their usual environment and their families are thousands of miles away.

A group of reservists who arrived in March received a briefing on compassion fatigue. They have been integrated into regular companies, giving them a sense of belonging, Harvey said.

Maj. Betty Pettway, an Army Reserve nurse who extended her tour at Landstuhl, shared an apartment with seven other hospital staffers. In the evenings, they would talk about what they'd experienced that day.

Pettway, who served in a mobile Army support hospital in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, said medical staff in that conflict didn't see the kinds of blast injuries as they're treating in this war, the result of roadside bombs used by insurgents in Iraq.

She has talked to spouses on the phone who have asked what their injured husbands look like.

"You're talking to a wife and seeing the soldier and know there's no way she can imagine what you're seeing,'' she said. ``You never told them exactly what you were seeing."

Now demobilized, Dickerson has been diagnosed with acute post-traumatic stress disorder and receives counseling at a Veterans Affairs facility in Pittsburgh.

He probably won't return to his civilian job at a VA hospital until June. But given the chance, he said, he would go back to the war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"It's a tremendous job - the best I've ever had,'' Dickerson said. "It seems ... tougher to be here instead of there."

On the Web:

For resources on compassion fatigue.