KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN — A recent deployment to Afghanistan was unexpected,but welcomed by Navy Lt. Cmdr. Josephine Hessert, DO.
“It was a little short notice; someone else was unable to go at the last minute,” recalls Hessert, who was stationed at Naval Hospital Bremerton, WA, as an ER staff physician. “It was a little unfortunate for the other physician, but I was thrilled to be able to go.”
While deployed in Kandahar, she is not only treating severe traumatic injuries minutes after they occur in battle, but also serving as assistant chair of the Kandahar Role 3 MMU (Multinational Medical Unit) medical records committee, which coordinates records for NATO forces as they move through different levels of care and back to their home countries.
“This is what we train for — especially in emergency medicine,” Hessert says. “As an emergency physician, we see some trauma back in the U.S., but it’s a different scope than that which we see in Afghanistan.”
This is Hessert’s second deployment; she was first sent to Iraq in 2008 as a flight surgeon. “Then I worked at a battalion aide station but not at a big hospital like this,” Hessert notes. She anticipates her current deployment, which began in March, should last about six months.
Hessert says she was inspired to join the Navy after following the career of her “older brother/mentor” Navy Lt. Cmdr. David D. Hessert, MD.
“I was able to see him go through the pipeline; he was very happy with his naval career and service,” she recalls. Just before graduating from college, Hessert enlisted and signed up for a Health Professions Scholarship Program, which covered her medical school expenses. She was commissioned in 2001, graduated medical school in 2005, then came on active duty.
Hessert says she sees her mission as “Mentoring the junior sailors in terms of training corpsmen, not only for medical emergencies but also in the skills we would want any sailor to have, and pride in the traditions of the Navy.”
In Kandahar, Hessert serves in the Role 3 hospital — the largest of its kind run by the U.S. military in Afghanistan.
“We have all kinds of surgical capabilities — CT, labs — as much as you can do in Afghanistan without sending someone home, we can do here,” she notes.
Her most challenging work on battlefield injuries involves improvised explosive device ( IED) victims, she says.
“They are definitely a challenge both medically and psychologically, because they require very intensive care, but also because the nature of these injuries is so horrific and gory it takes an obvious toll, not only on the patients but even on the staff,” Hessert notes. “It’s hard to see that stuff on a regular basis and not have it get to you for a while.”
Because of that, she explains, the facility has psychiatrists and psychologists on staff, as well as a chaplain, whose doors are always open for staff as well as for patients.
“Our first priority is medical care — saving lives and doing immediate surgery — but the patients definitely get psychological care, right from the get-go,” she adds.
Hessert says her current deployment is rewarding in a number of ways.
“First and foremost it is taking care of these brave men and women who literally put their lives on the line for their country. They are amazing people who are very courageous, and it’s an honor to get to know and take care of them,” Hessert says. “But it’s also the medical people I get to work with; it’s just a very motivated group of people.”
While the staff with whom she serves back home are “plenty motivated,” Hessert says, “there’s a different camaraderie and closeness when you work together, live together, chow together and start working as a team when patients come in, doing whatever needs to be done.”
In addition to her clinical work, Hessert helps lead the medical records committee at the Kandahar facility, working to improve all forms of records communications.
“Of course it’s better for physicians back home when patients are transferred if everything is electronic and can be looked up on a computer system, but also here where there can be poor Internet connections at smaller hospitals and clinics we have a combination of paper charts and computer charts that has room for improvement,” she notes. “We have instituted some more standardized record-keeping like blood products forms, ICU nursing flowsheets and also working with the trauma registry to ensure all of our records are up to date and appropriately filled out.”
Such information, she continues, is used in not only in ongoing patient care but also for research purposes, addressing both solutions and preventive measures.
Hessert, who had recently been appointed chair of the physician wellness committee, says when she returns stateside that she hopes to address the stigma faced by physicians who need help with issues like drug abuse.
“I’d like to try somehow to put a positive spin on it — rather than looking at it as something ‘bad’ that has happened — and at least get some sort of prevention program going,” she says.
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