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Navy corpsmen keep skills scalpel sharp

8 Apr 2006 | Gunnery Sgt. Mark Oliva

Navy Seaman Bounmy Meunsy looked a little nervous holding a razor-sharp, stainless steel surgical tool.  It was there, hovering just hair-breadth’s distance away from his patient’s neck.  His task: cut the neck just below the Adam’s apple and shove a tube in.

Sounds gruesome, but opening a blocked airway is one of the most important skills to saving Marines on the battlefield.

Navy hospital corpsmen from Regimental Combat Team 5’s Aid Station recently brushed up on two of the most important lifesaving skills, the cricothyroidotomy and the use of tourniquets. 

“These are the two things that keep Marines alive,” said Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Juan M. Rodriguez, the 33-year-old Senior Medical Department Representative.  “They don’t have a lot of things in their bags, so they need to be very good with what they have.”

The corpsmen gathered around a “training dummy,” a latex mock-up of a human head, neck and airways leading to the lungs.  The first part was locating the right place to cut in the neck.  Cut too far one way or the other and there’s a good chance of nicking major blood vessels leading to and from the brain.

It’s enough stress to get it right the first time that even the coolest customers can get sweaty foreheads.  That’s why corpsmen constantly train with “hands-on” applications.

It’s a lot easier when you’re actually feeling around for the spot on the body,” Rodriguez explained.  “Most corpsmen are hands-on anyway and the more they’re exposed to it, the easier it’s going to be.”

The sailors pressed on each other’s necks locating the ring of cartilage just below the notch in the Adam’s apple.  The ring of thick tissue just beneath it was their target.  It was right there they’d cut and save a Marine’s life.

The practical application of feeling on each other’s necks and practicing on the mannequins is essential.  It’s that sort of training that helped Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Ulises V. Urbina save Marines’ lives in Najaf two years ago.

“We call it the four miracle minutes,” Urbina explained.  “You’ve got four minutes to restore breathing before brain damage occurs.

“It’s like riding a bike,” added the 25-year-old from Garden Grove, Calif.  “Once they’ve learned it, it’s going to come back to them.  I’ve never had a corpsman freeze up.”

It wasn’t just restoring breathing the sailors practiced, but also stanching blood flow.  They practiced using tourniquets, everything from placement to pressure.  Urbina explained it only takes a loss of a liter-and-a-half to two liters before shock can set-in to a patient. 

“There are three things that sustain life,” said Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class John W. Harper.  “That’s the airway, breathing and circulation.  Losing any one of these can cause death, so we train to restore those as quickly as possible.”

Harper, a 22-year-old from Dublin, Calif., is on his first tour in Iraq and is counting on these types of refresher drills to solidify his knowledge of lifesaving skills. 

“This training is very important for corpsmen,” he said.  “Without the training, there’s more chance to freeze up.  We put as much emphasis on this as Marines put on their rifles.”

Freezing up is something the veteran corpsmen have yet to seen.  The training regimen proved to be reliable when corpsmen took part in battles and stood up against the odds to save Marines lives.  Urbina saw it time and again during the battles in Najaf.

“When the patient came in, you just knew what you had to do,” he said.  “It was expedient care.  All the wounded who came in during the fighting in Najaf … they lived.”