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Medics below decks as Ocean’s sick bay is tested in casualty exercise
9 February 2017

An American medical team joined HMS Ocean in the Gulf to see if they could make use of the carrier’s sick bay – and work alongside RN medics.

The US Mobile Forward Surgical Team flew on to the helicopter assault ship off the UAE where a simulated amphibious assault led to mock mass casualties.

Pictures: LPhot Ben Shread, HMS Ocean

ROUNDS rip through the air, explosions all around in the Gulf sand and three critically-wounded Royal Marines need immediate evacuation by helicopter and landing craft.

Off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, British and American battlefield medics practised their ability to work side-by-side in wartime, using the UK flagship HMS Ocean and her impressive sick bay.

A specialist US medical team joined the helicopter assault group for the casualty drill – one of the tests of the Plymouth-based warship in her role as flagship of the Task Force 50, the premier naval group in the Gulf.

Ocean has been in charge of the group – typically headed by an American carrier – since November, directing the day-to-day efforts of at least half a dozen warships and auxiliaries, and as many as 20 vessels during major exercises.

Azraq Serpent was among the smaller work-outs conducted under Ocean’s banner as TF50 flagship – but a crucial one.

Most of the time Ocean’s sick bay provides a ‘role 1’ service – similar to your GP.

In times of conflict and tension, and with the regular team of eight bolstered by the arrival of extra surgeons, medics and experts from the UK, the medical complex becomes a ‘role 2’ facility – providing life-saving treatment and surgery to casualties before they can be flown off to permanent hospital facilties ashore.

Five days before the exercise began, the US Air Force Special Operations Command Mobile Forward Surgical Team (MFST) were flown aboard the Mighty O by US Navy Seahawk helicopters – a test of the Americans’ ability to deploy rapidly anywhere in the world.

“The scenario may be an exercise, and the casualties may be volunteers, but the responses and reactions have to be perfect,” explained task force medical advisor Lt Spike Hughes.

At stake: the ability to get the three wounded marines (one in danger of losing his limbs, another rapidly losing blood and a third with a gunshot wound to the chest) from a beach to the operating theatre in 60 minutes – the ‘golden hour’.

For Ocean’s permanent medical team, the exercise was a welcome change from dealing with everyday ailments, coughs and colds – and a chance to show the depth of expertise and experience of the sick bay personnel.

“We are your GP, your paramedic, your nurse. We provide gold-standard care as a rule,” said Chief Petty Officer Medical Assistant Tim Johnston.

“It has to be gold-standard. You need the men and women to have confidence in our ability to provide them with the very best care –- they deserve that.”

The Americans were delighted with their hosts – and the medical equipment aboard, although they did find adjusting to life at sea a bit tricky.

“It was challenging working on board a ship,” said surgeon Lt Col Sirikanya Sastri. “It is a huge vessel, and has several levels and stairwells. We had to learn to navigate patients to the ship’s medical ward, all the while dealing with ladders and stairwells.”

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Once they’d grown accustomed to the confined spaces, easily-tripoverable bulkhead doors, rocking, rolling and corkscrewing motion of the ship and got to know their British counterparts, they could concentrate on the exercise: “receive patients, triage them, and treat them”, in Lt Col Sastri’s words.

“In a real world situation, a patient’s condition can change in seconds, so our teams needed to be able to adapt at a second’s notice.”

The MFST’s commander, Lt Col Neva Vanderschaegen, said she had set out to prove that her team could fly out to a ship and care for casualties with the medical facilities to hand. “This I am pleased to say was very successful.”

Observing Azraq Serpent was Task Force 50 commander Commodore Andrew Burns. He said it was “an excellent step forward in establishing confidence in our ability to support real world emergencies or crisis.”