By Capt. Margaret Ziffer
Public Affairs Officer of the Kansas Army National Guard
Kansas City, Missouri – In 2005, Lance Cpl. Lauren Swensson, a radio operator in the U.S. Marine Corps, had just begun her first deployment to Iraq. She had completed a basic emergency medical treatment course through the Navy a few months prior, so one day her supervisor encouraged her to see if her new skills could be put to use in theater.
“I checked around at some of the clinics and they all said they didn’t really need anybody,” said Swensson. “Then I went over to the surgical shock and trauma platoon, which at the time was just tents.”
Swensson said her offer to assist was met with immediate and resounding acceptance. No sooner had she finished introducing herself that first day, the unit started receiving what would become Swensson’s first-ever real patients: 15 service members from a mass-casualty mortar attack.
Swensson said the rest of the surgical shock and trauma platoon was surprised to see her return the following day to volunteer again. She spent the rest of her deployment volunteering with the unit as often as she could.
After two more back-to-back deployments in Iraq, Swensson decided to leave the Marines.
“There were no real medical career opportunities in the Marine Corps,” explained Swensson. “Their support is mostly done through the Navy. And I really needed to take a breath. I wanted to go to some kind of medical school.”
After attending school in Kansas City, Swensson went on to become a surgical technician and began working for the University of Kansas Medical Center. There she met veteran Dr. John Alley, attending surgeon and assistant professor, and Dr. Jeff Colyer, at that time the lieutenant governor of Kansas, who talked to her about joining the Kansas Army National Guard, which she did in 2011.
Swensson, now a medical readiness noncommissioned officer for the 35th Infantry Division, became a medic in 2012, and in 2013 she attended a trauma course at Rush Medical College in Chicago.
“After returning from the course, I thought, you know, we could do this, but better,” said Swensson. “And not the sense that it was a bad course, because it was an amazing course, but it wasn’t medic-centric.”
Swensson immediately began coordinating with Alley to develop a program for their new course designed specifically for Army combat medics. Advanced Medical Sustainment and Trauma Training was born.
“The initial thought was that it would just be a lecture series,” said Alley, who has since returned to service as a major in the Kansas Army National Guard. “From there, with more input and thought, as we gained support from senior level leadership, we started coming up with more ideas.”
Now in its fourth year, AMSATT currently takes place a few times each year as a three-day course offered in partnership with The University of Kansas Health System and KU Medical Center. It covers a variety of skills, including Advanced Cardiac Life Support.
The most salient feature of AMSATT, however, is that it gives students access to the KU Medical Center cadaver lab and the opportunity to see how techniques they have learned in the classroom can actually be applied to a human body.
“This training is not, ‘You’re going to read an article about how to put in a chest tube,’” said Alley. “Here, you are going to be given the instructional period on how, and why, and when and where. And then you’re going to perform it. We want to help [the medics] learn by doing. We are teaching them the hands-on version.”
Pvt. 1st Class Chandler Dye, a medic with the 35th Infantry Division, took part in the course offered Oct. 19-21. Dye said AMSATT was a valuable opportunity for 68Ws, the military occupational specialty for combat medics.
“The training from 68W school is the basic stuff you are expected to know in the Army,” said Dye. “The training here with the cadaver lab gives you a more realistic idea of how things are going to work when you are working with a human body, as compared to when you train with a mannequin.”
“Even with high-tech mannequins and the live-simulation mannequins, it’s still different than doing it with actual tissue and seeing how much or how little force you need to use or how to manipulate certain things to get a human body to do what you need it to.”
Alley said that the vision behind AMSATT is to provide a bridge between entry level training and real-life, on-the-job emergency situations.
“Before the Soldier transitions from a peace time National Guard Soldier to serving in the middle of a regional disaster or in a combat zone, the hope is that they have had a chance to practice those skills,” said Alley.
“I’ve seen it before,” said Swensson. “My first time working on a real human in a trauma situation was a service member injured in combat. And that was very scary.”
“That shouldn’t be someone’s first time working with a real patient. I wouldn’t want to send my kid downrange and know that the person who is going to be taking care of them has just watched some videos and worked with a mannequin. We can do better.”
Aside from the valuable training itself, AMSATT gives participants the opportunity to network with the medical professionals currently employed with the Health System who volunteer to be their instructors, many of whom are veterans.
“This really is a golden opportunity,” said Alley. “I honestly wish they had something like this when I was a medic. Because it would have been an amazing leap forward. The hands-on training, and the opportunities, and the command support. It gives each medic the understanding that they have value and that their leadership wants them to be the best that they can be.”
And better training for medics, Swensson and Alley say, ultimately benefits everyone.
“A significant number of our 68Ws have a civilian job in the medical field in some shape or form, or have aspirations to do so,” said Alley.
“The skillsets they are learning here, they can take back to their civilian jobs in EMS, firefighting, or the ER. It’s going to help them all around,” said Swensson. “It might inspire them to do more, to go after that degree they were thinking about.”
Dye, an EMT in his civilian life, said he has already experienced the benefits outside his National Guard capacity.
“This training helps my civilian job, because even though I can’t necessarily do a lot of the skills that I can do as a combat medic, as an EMT it gives me a better idea of what my paramedic partner is thinking, and how they will treat a patient,” said Dye. “It gives us more unification in our team, helps us work more efficiently, and provides better outcomes from our patients.”
Past course participants have included Kansas Soldiers, medics from the Missouri Army National Guard, S.W.A.T. teams from the Kansas City area, and active duty Soldiers getting ready to deploy.
Swensson and Alley say they want to see the course offered to medics nationally, and to expand it into a full week of training that includes programs like Pediatric Advanced Life Support, International Trauma Life Support and Basic Disaster Life Support.
“Medics everywhere need training,” said Swensson.
Regardless of what organization that medic comes from, increased training leads to increased chances of saving someone’s life. And that’s what it’s all about.
“It might sound a bit cliché, but I like helping people,” said Dye. “In this profession you see a lot of bad – you see people expire, you see people that shouldn’t be hurt get hurt. But the times that you can actually make a difference, and you save somebody’s life, it’s incredible.”