At makeshift Puerto Rico hospital, Beaumont Army hospital doctor helps the injured
By DAVID BURGE | El Paso Times, Texas | Published: December 21, 2017
EL PASO, Texas (Tribune News Service) — A doctor at William Beaumont Army Medical Center saw first-hand the devastation done to Puerto Rico and its people by Hurricanes Irma and Maria — and did his part to help from a basketball arena that was turned into a makeshift hospital.
Lt. Col. Eric Ahnfeldt, a general surgeon and the director of the General Surgery Residency Program at Beaumont, deployed to the U.S. island territory from late September until right before Thanksgiving.
He did several surgeries to repair chainsaw injuries and other near amputations of limbs suffered by people while removing debris. He also served as a general internist providing a wide range of health care.
Ahnfeldt, a 42-year-old from Colorado Springs, Colo., deployed as an individual and augmented the capabilities of the 14th Combat Support Hospital out of Fort Benning, Ga., a mobile hospital unit that was sent to Puerto Rico.
“We absolutely did make a difference,” Ahnfeldt said.
Damage to the island territory is estimated to be as high as $90 million. The official death toll is 64 but actually could be as high as 1,000, the New York Times recently reported.
The 14th Combat Support Hospital, more often called the 14th CSH, set up operations in a basketball arena in Humacao, Puerto Rico, in the southeastern part of the island. That area was particularly hard hit by Hurricane Maria and was near where the storm initially came ashore, Ahnfeldt said.
“We became the center of everything — medical care, water and food distribution,” he said.
The mobile hospital unit, which has the capability of providing from 44 to 88 beds, saw about 2,700 patients and conducted 57 surgeries during its time in Puerto Rico, Ahnfeldt said.
Ahnfeldt himself did seven surgeries during his deployment in Puerto Rico.
He also saw patients with a full array of medical issues. The most common were people with heart conditions, diabetes or breathing problems who had run out of medication because of the disruption caused by both Hurricanes Irma and Maria, Ahnfeldt said.
“We had patients of every socio-economic level,” he said. “We had people with doctorates who came in and had nothing, and we had people who were homeless to begin with.”
Also deploying from Beaumont to augment the 14th CSH was Capt. Tom Murgel, an intensive care nurse from Helena, Mont.
The 14th CSH was only part of the medical response that the military provided to Puerto Rico. The Navy sent U.S. Navy Ship Comfort, a floating hospital, that was stationed off of San Juan, the capital in the north-central part of the island, while the Air Force sent a forward surgical team that was stationed in the northwest.
Col. Chris Lindner, the deputy commander at Beaumont, said that what Ahnfeldt did “is exactly what we train our folks to go do, be able to provide medical support anywhere in the world at any time.”
Beaumont doesn’t deploy its medical soldiers as a unit. But they are trained to deploy individually and provide top-quality medical care in places like hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico or in combat zones, said Lindner from Covina, Calif.
“We have to keep them prepared to go do that on a moment’s notice,” Lindner said.
Ahnfeldt has been stationed at Beaumont since 2013 but has been attached to the 14th CSH for about nine months. He had about 96 hours to deploy after getting notice about the Puerto Rico mission.
Coincidentally, Ahnfeldt had just returned from the 14th CSH’s annual exercise at Fort Benning when he found out he would be deploying to Puerto Rico.
Ahnfeldt said he is absolutely a better Army officer and better doctor from having gone on this mission.
“You were put in an uncomfortable mission with limited resources and were expected to provide the same level of care as you would here” at Beaumont, Ahnfeldt said.
This was the fifth time that Ahnfeldt had deployed in his career. The other times were to Afghanistan twice, to Iraq once and Kosovo once.
Ahnfeldt credited Col. Paula C. Lodi, the commander of the 44th Medical Brigade at Fort Bragg, N.C., and Col. Rachele M. Smith, commander of the 14th CSH, with making sure the mobile hospital unit was properly trained for the mission. The 44th Medical Brigade oversees the 14th CSH.
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