Kandahar Airfield opens bigger hospital

Coalition soldiers enter the new Role 3 Hospital at Kandahar Airfield, Tuesday, June 1, 2010. The brick-and-mortar facility opened two weeks ago to take over for the old Role 3 health facility. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tara Brautigam

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - Here, the dying get a second chance.

"They hit our doors, they live," said Lt.-Col. Douglas Kromrey, the executive officer of the new Role 3 Hospital at Kandahar Airfield.

It's a bold promise, but one the Ottawa resident dares to keep since the military hospital opened two weeks ago.

During an exclusive tour of the facility, Kromrey explained some of the advantages the new Role 3 has over its predecessor — 30 per cent more bed, emergency and exam room capacity and a 64-slice CT scanner that allows for quicker imaging with a higher resolution than the old 4-slice scanner.

With its brick-and-mortar exterior, gleaming hallways and state-of-the-art equipment, the new hospital is a far cry from the paint-chipped, plywood shack it has replaced.

"We have oxygen systems, electrical systems — it's the same capability you would find in a medium-sized hospital back home in Canada," Kromrey said. "And I would even say that some of the rural hospitals don't even have some of the capability."

While the Role 3 may look like it belongs in any Canadian city, the injuries it treats are often very different from those back home.

"Hardly a day goes by without somebody having a gunshot wound or hardly a day goes by where somebody wasn't involved in an IED blast here," said Capt. Rich Hilsden, a 28-year-old doctor from Hamilton.

"I can be working at St. Michael's in Toronto or one of the other major trauma centres in Canada and not have the same experience that you have here."

Case in point: hours before the hospital was to open, insurgents fired rockets and mortars at the base. An undisclosed number of civilians and military personnel were rushed to the old Role 3.

Hilsden, 28, worked around the clock with his trauma team to care for the unexpected influx before treating the first patients at the new hospital.

"I was destroyed," Hilsden said. "I was a zombie."

A typical day involves four trauma cases. But it's not uncommon for eight to nine trauma patients to be treated in a shift.

The old Role 3, built in 2002, earned a reputation for providing excellent medical care under the most trying of circumstances. In February 2006 until October of last year, it was a Canadian-led facility that treated thousands of coalition troops, civilians and Afghans for all sorts of ailments and life-threatening injuries.

It was the little hospital that could.

Sometimes the parents, wives and husbands of some of the soldiers who died in Afghanistan visited the base and made it a point to see the hospital that treated their loved ones during their final moments of life.

"They always want to see the Role 3 because the Role 3 is sort of like that mythical beast," said Kromrey, who is on his third tour in Afghanistan.

But for all the bells and whistles in the new building, the medical staff are still working out some of the kinks. Keeping the shelves stocked with medication can pose a challenge, particularly in a war zone.

Before the tour, the power was knocked out for a brief period.

"Moving into a new building is like owning a new house," said Kromrey, 47. "You notice that the cupboard's not on properly or the power doesn't work in the bathroom, and that's what we've been dealing with for the last month or so."

Canadians make up the second-largest contingent of staff at the multinational hospital. American, British and Dutch doctors and nurses also work there.

The facility has the same medical rules of eligibility that the old Role 3 employed — coalition soldiers get priority treatment, followed by Afghan army and police personnel.

Health officials will also accept local nationals, though that's ultimately a doctor's call depending on capacity.

Capt. Mikylah Klepach, a critical-care nurse from Edmonton, said while the old Role 3 had "a lot of character," patients appreciate the upgrades.

"It doesn't feel like it's in Kandahar when you compare it to the old building," said Klepach, 26.

"People are happy that it's here. And as far as patient safety and ward safety, it's a bunker. So it's better for rocket attacks."