Navy hopes new medical unit will 'stop the dying'
ARLINGTON, Va. — The Navy’s new Expeditionary Medical Unit accomplishes one key mission, said the Navy’s surgeon general.
“It stops the dying,” Navy Surgeon General Vice Adm. Michael Cowan said of the Navy’s quickly deployable battlefield medical treatment facility, commonly called EMU (each letter said separately.) “It stops it until [patients] can be moved safely and transported to the next level of care.”
The EMU is a one-operating room, 10-bed intensive care unit hospital that lets medical personnel provide the necessary life-saving medical treatment within the first “golden hour” of when a servicemember is wounded on the battlefield, Cowan said.
“We think this is the Lego system, the building block of tailor-made facilities that will meet our medical needs in mass-casualty events, disasters, nation building or large-scale conflicts,” Cowan said Friday as he stood in front of a display unit set up in the Pentagon’s center courtyard. It has “almost all the features you would find in a typical community hospital, but we can move this around the battlefield [and] set it up very quickly to where soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are in greatest danger.”
The EMU is light, mobile and relatively easy to tote and set up, he said. The field hospital not only meets battlefield requirements, but because it’s modular, can be furnished to accomplish an array of missions from combat to humanitarian.
Technology has come a long way, Cowan said, citing the new 1,000-pound portable oxygen generator that replaces one that weighs 7,000 pounds and needed a special forklift to lift and install. The new one can be carried by some of the 44-member team who assemble it.
It also comes equipped with portable and lightweight digital X-ray, removing the need for heavy processing equipment and harsh chemicals and produces images that can be sent via the Internet to technicians who can aid field surgeons in treating patients, Cowan said.
One of the Navy’s three EMUs, which costs roughly $2.5 million each, is currently deployed to Djibouti, Africa. They also were deployed to Iraq and treated Marines wounded in combat.
“It can be whatever we need it to be,” said Navy Capt. Martin Snyder, the head of the surgery department for Naval Medical Center Portsmouth, Va. “It’s a modular plug-and-play, all-purpose hospital, and it’s great.”
The Navy’s fleet hospital units, used during the first Gulf War, provided 250 to 500 beds but were not as flexible and required 39 acres and two weeks for setup, Snyder said. The EMU can be fully operational within 48 hours, and measures just 100 feet by 140 feet.
If Snyder needs a pediatric unit tacked on, a CT scan, more operating rooms, no problem, said the general surgeon.
But there are drawbacks, he said. The lightweight gurney-style surgical table might be easily transportable, but limits him in the number of ways to position patients, such as allowing him to elevate the legs for certain types of surgeries, he said.
And while the tents are sealed all the way around, meaning sides no longer would flap in the wind, the operating rooms aren’t sterile, Snyder said. “They’re clean, but not sterile.”
Does it hinder the surgical treatment or recovery of wounded troops?
“Surprisingly, no,” Snyder said. “Dirty wounds” as they’re called, aren’t fully sutured, for example, in field units. The EMU staff would provide critical resuscitative care, and patients would be transported to more advanced facilities for follow-on care, he said.