UIJEONGBU, South Korea — Doctors and nurses rushed through the doors of the emergency room at St. Mary’s Hospital, tending to an elderly farmer who lay unconscious on a gurney. Struck by a tractor, the man had a heartbeat so weak that doctors feared he would need CPR.
U.S. Army Pfc. Adam Myers stood above the South Korean man’s head, pumping a football-shaped balloon as a South Korean doctor stood quietly at his side, urging him to pump slowly and rhythmically — enough to push a blast of air into the man’s lungs every five to six seconds.
For Myers, a 19-year-old combat medic assigned to Camp Casey, manually ventilating a patient was a skill with which he was familiar. But applying it in what he described as the “controlled chaos” of a hospital trauma center was something new.
“That person’s life is on the line,” said the medic, part of the 2nd Infantry Division’s Company C, 302nd Brigade Support Battalion, 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team. “You’re physically breathing for them.”
Since November 2012, the unit has sent medics to Catholic University of Korea Uijeongbu St. Mary’s Hospital to observe and sometimes even take part in trauma and emergency room operations.
Most of the soldiers are young and in South Korea on their first military assignment. While they’ve undergone basic EMT training and combat life support training in the field, most haven’t worked in a hospital.
“I’ve never been in a hospital, ever,” Pfc. Sebastian Torres, 20, said late last month during his first day at St. Mary’s.
All of the company’s almost 70 combat medics will eventually work at St. Mary’s on two-week rotations, usually two or three soldiers at a time.
During their time in the hospital, soldiers accompany doctors on their rounds, observe surgeries, help care for critical patients after operations, and perform relatively uncomplicated tasks such as suturing and applying dressings — “pretty much anything the physician is willing to instruct them on,” said Capt. Derek Zachary, company commander.
Zachary said the St. Mary’s program saves the time and cost of sending soldiers to the military hospital at U.S. Army Garrison Yongsan in Seoul for training. It also gives the U.S. Army a more visible presence in South Korea, and a chance to work in a designated trauma center in case of conflict with North Korea.
“It’s our duty to help out our soldiers and (South Korean) soldiers, but also the community,” he said.
Each U.S. soldier is accompanied by a South Korean soldier — a KATUSA, or Korean Augmentee to the U.S. Army — who acts as an interpreter when needed.
About 70 percent of conversations between doctors and soldiers are done without the help of an interpreter, since the doctors speak some English, according to Cho HangJoo, chief of hospital’s specialized trauma center and director of the emergency intensive care unit.
The Army medics, besides providing much-needed extra manpower in the hospital’s large trauma unit, help doctors by giving them a chance to practice their English medical terminology, Choo said.
Dr. Kim Sung Jeep said the program is useful because it helps U.S. soldiers and South Korean doctors get to know each other, and it gives soldiers the kind of experience they’ll need in a combat situation.
“This is a very, very good chance to let them take care of patients in case there is a state of war in the future,” he said.
While the U.S. medics arrive at the hospital with enough practical experience that they can “jump in and easily help out with patients,” he said, they leave their two-week rotations with more confidence, Zachary said.
“They’re more committed to their profession,” he said. “They have more of the reason behind the madness of everything.”
During her rotation, Pfc. Ana Eersteling, 24, scrubbed in and watched an appendectomy, saw a patient die and watched as another patient –- a young girl who had tried to commit suicide — arrived in a coma and gradually recovered.
The experience reaffirmed her plans to go to medical school.
For people who joined the Army “to see if they were going to like what they wanted to do, it’s definitely great,” she said. “I joined to be a medic, and I learned that I’m not disgusted by blood or bones.”
Stars and Stripes’ Yoo Kyong Chang contributed to this report.