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Navy hospital corpsman chooses between life and death

5 Apr 2004 | Cpl. Shawn C. Rhodes

Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Barry C. Gibson makes life and death decisions every day.  As 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment's triage officer, he's the one charged with deciding which wounded Marines are treated first.

"A Marine might be expected to die when he arrives, but it's my decision to judge whether he's capable of walking, whether he goes to emergency surgery, or - based on his vital signs - if he can be saved," Gibson said.

Gibson has to make those sorts of decisions in just a matter of minutes, with a minimal examination.  It's a tough responsibility and that was the reason the battalion recently held a mass casualty drill.

"This mass casualty drill is done to ensure the... battalion aid station, shock trauma platoon, and the forward resuscitative surgical system know their capabilities and can run smoothly and save lives," explained Gibson, from Orottoes, Va.

As part of the drill, 20 Marines with simulated injuries were loaded into ambulances and brought to the medical facility aboard the camp.  From there, they were off-loaded, assessed by the triage officer and moved to one of the three care facilities depending on their wounds.

It can be chaos when the wounded arrive in mass numbers, Gibson said.  They key is to control the chaos within, so the job gets done and the patient gets to where he needs to go.

The hardest part of his job is not deciding which patients can be saved or not, but living with the decision afterwards.

"The hardest part of being the triage officer is the aftermath of your decisions, ensuring you made the right decision," Gibson explained.  "The reality is some people might not make it.  You have to live with that."

"Triage comes from a French word, meaning to sort.  Out there when we first receive our wounded, it's the triage officer who's in charge," Navy Chief Petty Officer Jason M. Foree, the senior hospital corpsman for the battalion from Tuscaloosa, Ala.  "The triage officer has to go to every patient and - not playing God - he has to decide which ones get treated first."

Foree explained the corpsman's duty is to help the living, so it's a big call for the triage officer to make.  Using a clear head, decisiveness and moral strength are requirements while making the decision.

"He's got to balance the human lives at stake against the tactical situation," Foree said.  That's what it comes down to."

All involved saw the drill as a success.  When all the patients had been off-loaded, marked with a number for tracking and moved to the appropriate care facility, the medical staff assessed their performance.

"This went very well.  It was really organized," said Gibson.  "If the whole process is smooth, it means quicker access to medical care for the patients, and that saves lives."

The people in the middle of the chaos were the litter-bearers, whose job it is to offload the wounded until the triage officer can assess them.

"You have to keep your mind clear during all this.  There's a lot going on around you and you have to know what your job is," said Lance Cpl. Michael W. Burgess, 21, from Jacksonville, N.C. 

"You've got to know who's in charge and follow orders," explained Burgess, who worked as a litter bearer.  "If you don't, it could give them less time to live."