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British Army goes on the road to support earthquake victims in Turkey whilst military medics share skills

The British Army’s airborne medics have brought care to isolated rural communities in Turkey whose medical facilities have not reopened since the earthquake. Whilst working together and sharing skills and experience, British and Turkish military and civilian medics has been a driving force in earthquake relief efforts in Turkey.

16 Medical Regiment has deployed at short notice to help the people of Turkey, setting up a joint medical treatment facility with Turkish and UK Emergency Medical Teams (EMT) at Turkoglu, close to the earthquake’s epicentre.

Working with the UK EMT, the medics sent a medical outreach patrol out to remote villages in the mountains of Kahramanmaras Province, treating 69 patients over two days.

The 10-strong team included a military GP, an emergency nurse and combat medical technicians; an emergency medicine consultant and an advanced care paramedic from UK EMT, which is funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office; and three interpreters.

By getting out on the road we’ve been able to reach more people who need help Combat Medical Technician Private Webb

Amid continuing aftershocks, the medics treated 43 patients in Akbayir on their first day, and then moved on to Sogutlu. After arriving in the village, where most buildings bear the scars of the earthquake, the team quickly set up an impromptu clinic in a community centre. Responding to an announcement on the village mosque’s public address system, the first patients were being treated within 15 minutes of the medics turning up. Within a few hours, 26 people had been treated and arrangements made to return a few days later.

Most of the patients’ problems were either respiratory issues brought about by living in tents in sub-zero temperatures since the earthquake struck, or people with long-term health conditions requiring medication.

Combat medical technician Private Jodie Webb said: “By getting out on the road we’ve been able to reach more people who need help. The level of destruction out in the villages is quite severe; it’s hard to picture your own family in this situation and that motivates you to do all that you can.

"We’ve been welcomed wherever we’ve gone, and patients’ have been really appreciative. I joined the Army as a medic because I wanted to help people, and it’s been so rewarding to do that during a humanitarian disaster on this scale.”

UK EMT emergency medicine consultant Darren Dewhurst said: “Turkey has a good healthcare system that is really kicking back into action after the earthquake, and we are here to support where we can. While hospitals are mostly open, community healthcare is still getting back on its feet and by doing this outreach work we are helping to bridge that gap.”

Mr Dewhurst said that there had been “a brilliant relationship” with the Army medics.

“Medically, the soldiers are highly skilled, professional and compassionate in how they treat patients,” he said. “But the organisational skills and mindset that the Army brings has been as much of an advantage. Soldiers are used to moving at short notice and are willing to accept uncertainty and discomfort, which are vital qualities for working in a disaster zone.”   

Pte Webb emphasised the significance of female medics in a Muslim country. 

“There are cultural sensitivities in Turkey meaning that women don’t want to be treated by a male doctor,” the 21-year-old said. “Having women among our medics means we can treat more people. As an example, I did a chest examination on a female patient and reported back to a doctor what I’d heard, for him to decide on treatment.” 

16 Medical Regiment, supported by the RAF’s Tactical Medical Wing, has deployed at short notice to set up a medical treatment facility at Turkoglu, close to the earthquake’s epicentre. Located alongside Turkish and UK Emergency Medical Teams (EMT) at the site of a community hospital unable to open due to earthquake damage, the three organisations have been working as one.

The EMTs provide an emergency department, paediatrics, women’s health, minor injuries, and x-ray services – known in medical jargon as Role 1, with Role 2 surgical and ward facilities provided by the military facility.

The joint approach has seen military medics working in the Role 1 clinic, and patients referred from there to the military Role 2 for minor surgical procedures.

Bringing together the expertise of Turkish and UK medics, military and civilian, means that we have been able to achieve more together to help the people of Turkey Lieutenant Colonel Burn

Lieutenant Colonel Seb Burn, Commanding Officer of 16 Medical Regiment, said: “Bringing together the expertise of Turkish and UK medics, military and civilian, means that we have been able to achieve more together to help the people of Turkey. It is a collective achievement to have treated more than 5,000 patients at the Turkoglu facility since troops arrived on 13th February to support the Turkish and UK civilian medics already working there.

Interpreters provided by the UK EMT, which is funded by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, have enabled communication with Turkish patients. Many are medical students from local universities, and their medical knowledge and skills have been proved invaluable in a job that, for them, has become learning by doing.

Squadron Leader Kate Pathak, an RAF medical officer, and interpreter Wissam Khoshnaw, a fifth-year medical student at Gazientep University Hospital, have developed a close working relationship.

“Initially I viewed Wissam as a translator, but as we worked together I realised he had medical knowledge and we talked about how to make best use of that,” Sqn Ldr Pathak said. “Now, we’ll question and examine a patient together, discuss our findings, and work out a diagnosis and treatment between us.

For me, it’s a big help to have someone aware of Turkish culture and how people explain their medical problems; at the same time Wissam is gaining experience and developing his skills.”

Wissam said: “I’m trying to pick up every ounce of expertise that I can from Dr Kate and the other British medics. The key thing I’ve learnt from Dr Kate is to have patience, be meticulous, and seek out the details. The patient’s needs and dignity should be the focus, whereas in the Middle East the approach taken by many doctors is more about dealing with people quickly to hit a quota.

When I go back to my studies, I will be a better doctor because of this experience.”

Informal discussion groups have also been held for the three different groups of medics to share their skills and experiences.

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