Not many people would consider it lucky to find themselves in a trauma hospital in Northern Iraq.
Darlene, who can’t have her last name published due to security rules, is a 49-year-old nurse from Halifax working in a Canadian field hospital in Erbil, about 80 km away from the battlegrounds of Mosul. Canadians took over the trauma centre from the Americans in November as part of the Canadian contribution to the coalition fighting ISIL.
She and around 49 others who are staffing the medical centre consider it a great opportunity to be working there.
“I think we all feel we’ve won a bit of a lottery to come over here,” she says. “This is exactly what we’re trained for, exactly what we all wanted to do. There’s not a person here who doesn’t want to be here, that’s for sure.”
Darlene joined the military 31 years ago as a cook and took up nursing in 2009. “It always interested me as I got older. Just dealing with deaths in the family and seeing the medical needs of friends and family.”
Iraq is the first time she’s been deployed to a combat zone but a year ago she was in Lebanon under Operation Provision.
“We were with the Syrian refugees so this is a completely different deployment but nonetheless equally rewarding,” she says. “Most of us in the Canadian Forces, we’re always looking for these opportunities so it’s certainly an opportunity that not many people deny going.”
While some spouses might balk at their loved ones working in a war zone for six months, Darlene says her husband thought it was a great opportunity and pushed her towards it. “He said this is something I would need, professionally and personally.”
So in late October, Darlene packed up, hugged her husband, son and dog, and shipped out.
The hospital, officially called a Coalition Role 2 medical facility, is staffed by about 50 Canadians including physicians, nurses, medical technicians, laboratory and diagnostic imaging technicians, a dental team and support staff. Many of them have trauma experience from serving in Afghanistan.
“The team of Canadians we sent here are all professionals with a wide array of background experience from Afghanistan deployments and they’re all pretty excited to get on the ground and put their skills into practice,” says Lt.-Col. Richard Morin, commanding officer of the medical facility.
He calls it a mini-hospital focused on trauma care. Their job is to treat coalition forces and anyone else, including captured ISIL members. Previously the Americans were running a scaled-down surgical unit, which was meant to keep casualties alive.
Since the Canadians took over it has expanded. It has two operating rooms and a four-bed intensive care unit staffed by two surgical teams: one Canadian, one Norwegian. There’s another ward with four beds and a mobile dental clinic for emergency dental care.
“We provide that enhanced surgical capability and holding ability for critically injured coalition members in Northern Iraq,” Morin says “There’s a robust deployment of medical facilities throughout Iraq.”
Darlene says the hospital is quite impressive.
“We’ve seen everything from typical emergency room cases to trauma related cases. We don’t normally see the lumps and bumps kind of thing…but we provide care to everyone who comes through the door for whatever the nature of the care may be.”
Just like a hospital in Halifax where she has worked, everyone has their roles. “It’s very similar to a civilian hospital trauma room.”
If someone comes in for a broken arm their stay is limited and they go back to work. If they need surgery, medical staff determine if they could do the surgery there or ship them out to another hospital.
And if there are no patients in house, they train.
While it mirrors a civilian hospital in many ways, Darlene says she gets to see situations she would never experience in a hospital back home, and that was one of the incentives to sign up.
“Professionally it’s an amazing opportunity and personally it’s a chance to come over here and see through the eyes of somebody else.”
But it’s not without a personal cost. Darlene said the hardest thing is missing her family, especially over the holidays. She said, shortly before the holidays, she would miss snow over Christmas.
“It goes down to -1°C at night. I don’t know why but we’re all really shocked so the Americans laugh at us: we’re Canadians and we find it cold,” she says. “We think my gosh, what are we going to do when we go home? We’re cold here and it’s only -1°C.”
But even homesickness can’t compete with the mission. Everyone who is there firmly wants to be there, Darlene says.
“We’re extremely proud of the work we’re doing. We’re here to support the coalition and all the individuals here… they know that when they need us, we are here. If they get injured, the Canadians are here.”