Friday, November 11, 2016

A Triage Training Exercise

We were abruptly awoken from our sleep in the middle of the night. We were needed near the front — and fast. Our mobile dental clinics were designed to be packed up and moved in less than 30 minutes, and we were soon on the road. My dental assistant driving, I was navigating us to our destination of the Field Ambulance hospital.

Attack helicopters and A10 Warthog tactical attack planes were circling overhead in the distance, firing on the enemy as we rumbled over and around rolling, sandy hills. Then we heard a series of bang-puff sounds, like the sound a bag of flour makes when it hits the floor and releases all of its contents. We looked at each other with that knowing fear and immediately put on our gas masks.

We arrived at our destination, and our fears were confirmed. The enemy, losing the battle, deployed chemical weapons in desperation. We were ordered to get into our safety environmental suits, which we did without hesitation. We were briefed about what had happened and what we were to do, but we already knew what our roles would be.

Earlier that year, we had received training on what we would do in a chemical warfare environment. With our extensive general medical knowledge and expertise in the orofacial region, I was to be deployed outside the surgical tents, receiving the incoming soldiers and civilians (collateral damage), and be in charge of triage. I would be the primary dentist deciding who we could save now, who could safely wait while more urgent injuries were cared for and who we would be unable to save. The sweat of anticipation and fear built up rapidly across my forehead.

We did not have to wait long before they came in waves. At first, it was primarily soldiers who came in. The damage was ghastly. But our roles were critically important, and you just focused on the role, knowing that you were saving lives. We injected narcotic pain killers in those who were in great pain. No sooner than we would clear the area of the injured to be treated when more arrived. Eventually, as the hours wore on, some civilian victims caught in the battle, made it to our field hospital, and we treated all who came.

Six hours later, the flow of incoming people stopped. It was “over” for now. We went to the decontamination area, where we undressed, showered, cleaned and put on fresh clothes. Exhausted, thirsty and hungry, we made our way over to the command center for our debrief.

In the weeks after Iraq had invaded Kuwait, and a growing fear that the world would intervene in what was later known as the First Gulf War, we were busily preparing for the worst. Everyone knew how Iraq and Iran had used chemical weapons in the recent past, sometimes on their own people. We did not want to be caught unaware.

The story above describes a practical training exercise, a very realistic one. The images of those hours haunted my thoughts and my dreams for months afterward, and in my case, no one was really hurt. It was all amazing makeup, props and acting. But we performed well, and if the real thing had happened, we would have been ready to do our best to save as many people as possible. I am thankful and grateful this scenario never came to be.

To this day, in Canada, in the United States and around the world, our defense organizations work hard to prepare their personnel to be able to ensure we continue to be free. In the past, millions of men and women have fought and paid the ultimate sacrifice so that we may enjoy the freedoms we have today. In Canada, on Remembrance Day, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, we will remember them.

May the scenario told above never happen. May we continue to enjoy our freedom. And let us all show our gratitude that we live in a perfectly imperfect democracy that works hard to ensure we remain free.

Larry Stanleigh, BSc, MSc, DDS, FICD, FADI, FACD, FPFA

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