Quick response helped Iceland-base unit save Russian sailor
Air Force Tech. Sgt. Eric Barry and members of the Keflavik, Iceland-based 56th Rescue Squadron were getting ready to fly a training mission when they found out they wouldn’t be practicing that day.
It was time to put their training to the test.
They got the call in the afternoon of Sept. 14 to evacuate a 19-year-old Russian sailor with a potentially fatal abdominal injury. The fact the sailor was on a destroyer 230 miles from Naval Air Station Keflavik only added to the challenge and urgency. But in less than 20 minutes, Barry and the other crew members assembled, geared up a pair of HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters and rushed to the destroyer Admiral Chabanenko.
Although rescue squadrons are often compared to ambulance crews, rescuing patients by helicopter off a ship so far away requires more training and is certainly riskier, according to the sailors.
“There are more challenges associated with getting a patient from a ship or whatever area into the helicopter,” Barry said.
Getting there took some time.
It took 2½ hours and a refueling stop in the Vestmann Islands to reach the Russian ship. Because the landing pad was too small, Barry and Staff Sgt. Jason Marfell had to be lowered to the deck of the ships by rope.
When they arrived, the Russian sailor still was on the operating table and his abdomen was open. Medical personnel aboard the ship had to operate on the sailor to stop internal bleeding. The pararescuemen expected the patient would be ready to go.
“We walked right into the middle of the surgery, which complicated matters,” Marfell said.
The squadron doesn’t know exactly how the sailor got injured, but they knew they had to get him to a hospital quickly. The ship’s medical staff didn’t have the capability to care for him.
“He was doing pretty well the entire flight home,” Barry said. “But with a situation like that, it could change in an instant.”
The pararescuemen used bandages to cover the wound and to keep his organs in place. They had to wet the wraps with water to ensure the organs stayed moist. They put him in a special “patient-treatment bag” to prevent hypothermia.
The goal: Keep the man alive and stable until they could get him to doctors on the ground.
But getting him to the helicopter would not be easy.
Marfell and Barry carried the man through narrow ship passageways and up two flights of stairs to the flight deck. From there, they used a tagline to hoist him up into the helicopter. The pitching deck bobbing in the choppy seas, in addition to the wind, made it a challenge.
On the way back to Iceland, the crew contacted the hospital in Reykjavik and relayed the man’s vital signs, current condition, blood type and other important information the emergency medical staff would need. Moments after they landed, doctors and nurses would have to operate.
The crew landed at the hospital at 5:50 p.m., about four hours and 25 minutes from the time the squadron got the call. Doctors were able to save the sailor, but it is unlikely he would have made it if he had not been evacuated to the hospital.
Members of the squadron said it is rewarding to get the chance to do their job and save somebody’s life.
“It was a good mission,” Marfell said. “We did some good that day.”