Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Perfect Event

The Siachen Glacier! Kilroy Camp at a Height of 21500 feet above Mean Sea Level – ambient temperature outside the fibre-glass mountain-hut was minus 40 below zero. Complete cloud over in the valley. Visibility in flash-light - White-Out ! All troop movements halted until next ‘Clear-Weather’ signal.

1:00 a.m.
The radio set cackled with Subedar Man Singh’s voice, ‘Alpha 1 calling Kilroy Sheep; Alpha 1 calling Kilroy Sheep’ palpable urgency
‘Kilroy Sheep standing by Alpha 1, what’s the problem?’
‘Saab, Virender’s got a severe pain in the stomach; he’s vomiting! I think he has high fever also, Saab’
‘OK Subedar-saab, tell me, if the belly-button were the center & you draw a clock on Virender’s belly, at what o’clock is the maximum pain?’
‘Well Saab …. if the head-end is 12 o’clock, his pain…… is ……. at 8 o’clock, saab’
‘OK Subedar-saab, will you please slowly, gently but firmly press on the area of maximum pain, and tell me his reaction … do it now … and tell me ….quickly’
After a few minutes the radio cackled again, ‘ Saab, as soon as I pressed, he tensed his belly rock-hard, screamed in pain and vomited soon afterwards, Saab !’ controlled fear trembling in the voice.
‘OK, stand-by for further orders, over-n-out,’ he clicked off the radio set and said, ‘Capt Manishankar, Virender has a ruptured Appendix, which needs to be operated upon ASAP, or else, he will die … we need to evacuate him & send him to the Field Med Out Post for urgent surgery.’

Capt Manishankar had that ‘totally disgusted’ look in his eyes when he asked, ‘How much time do we have, Doc ?’
‘Look Mani, against regulations, I have some secret stock of Intravenous Antibiotics here, just for such a situation. If I get him here, I can give him 2 doses, that can stall the fatal septicemia for about 15 hours, maybe 18 hrs … with a lot of luck.’
‘OK, let’s get him down here first … but how on earth will he descend the sheer vertical 200 feet ‘Angels Face ‘ .. that he has to do on his own steam … you think he can do that, Doc ?’
‘No way, Mani, the guy can hardly stand … how can he climb down a rope, at this hour, in his condition, with this weather, in this visibility man ! He’ll collapse right there!’
‘But if he stays there he dies anyway, right ? So, we have to try to get him down, Doc. But, even if he survives his descent & reaches here, how will the choppers come in to evacuate him through this cloud cover, Doc ? We haven’t seen the Sun in 4 days now!’
‘We got no options here, Mani .. situation is non-negotiable … we got to give him this only chance!’
‘Kilroy Tiger to Alpha 1 … send emergency link-patrol to evacuate Naik Virender, now !! Mortar support to provide covering-fire, if any enemy activity happens …over-n-out’
‘Alpha 1 to Kilroy Tiger … jo hukum, Saab …over-n-out’

4:45 a.m.
Unbelievably, Virender was still alive when the link-patrol from the Observation Point at 24000 feet reached Kilroy Camp. Virender’s blood pressure was 80/50; pulse 125/min; he was sweating, unable to speak, ghostly pale & burning with fever of 39 degrees Celsius. The diagnosis was confirmed in the medical hut, and after initial resuscitation, he was stabilized with intravenous re-hydration, tepid-sponging, intra-muscular painkiller injection & got the 1st dose of IV Antibiotics. Soon, his BP was 110/70, pulse 100/min … how he had survived the descent of 2500 feet, how he had climbed down ‘Angel Face ‘ ….. was a snub to all medical science !

6:45 a.m.
‘Kilroy Tiger calling Tiger Base HQs … need to evacuate single casualty to Field Med Out Post for life-saving surgery, Sir … man diagnosed as Burst Appendix with frank Peritonitis, now stable enough to withstand evacuation, Sir !’
‘Arrey-yaar Mani, ask Doc if he’s sure or not. These young MOs …. they tend to panic & make a mountain out of a molehill … talk to him & see if it’s really so serious or not.’
‘Anticipating exactly this response, Doc already consulted Major Dutta, MO-in-Charge Base Camp, Sir.
I have spoken with him too, Sir. This is the real thing, Sir.
Request immediate Casevac , Sir !
Kilroy Tiger standing-by Sir, Over-n-out’

9:30 a.m.
‘ Tiger Base HQs calling Kilroy Tiger …HQ Ops Control declined Heliborne Medical Casevac, citing complete cloud cover your sector … standing-by for next Clear-Weather signal … keep-up morale of troops, Mani!’

After giving the 2nd painkiller injection to Virender the MO walked over to scrambler-radio hut.
‘Kilroy Sheep, calling Air-OP Eagle 3 …Kilroy Sheep, calling Air-OP Eagle 3’.
After a few minutes of static, the cold freezing his face & legs, he heard the familiar voice of Capt Shiva, dare-devil Air-Op pilot, who’s missions of Casevac were legend.
‘Eagle 3 calling Kilroy Sheep … Hey Doc ! did you get 2 bottles of Scotch I sent last week ?’
‘Received 2 bottles intact and missed your company drinking them, Eagle 3’
‘Promise to send u latest edition Playboy, next sortie Doc ! You just have 22 days left before you de-induct , Doc … then there will be more bottles of Scotch for you & me … what’s the sit-rep now, Doc ?’
‘Shiva, I can hold this guy for another 6 hours max ….. after that, he’s going to …… fade. I am gonna give him my last 3 ampoules of IV antibiotics now. And, I’ll have the last Pethidine injection left … only for his Evac …... he needs a miracle ….. or you !’
‘Stand-by doc …I’m watching the weather, will move even if …… until …. at least the clouds thin-out.
But right now, I’m grounded, Doc … just no-can-do …… good-luck…over-n-out’

10:30 a.m.
2nd dose of IV antibiotics given to Naik Virender. His BP was 120/70, temparature 38 degrees celcius, his breathing rapid-n-shallow due to the pain. In the cookhouse, troops were talking about Virender having been blessed with his 3rd daughter just a few months back. And how he had been the best mountaineer in his platoon 3 yrs running. His Platoon Havaldar, was looking at the envelope containing the ‘last letter to the family’ which Virender had given him before going to the OP.

12:30 p.m.
The whole valley leading upto Kilroy Camp still covered in thick clouds … though, vertically above the Camp, the clouds thinned out.

1:30 p.m.
Cloud-cover directly above Kilroy Camp cleared … clear blue-sky could be seen …. as if through a giant hole-in-the-umbrella …. of the clouds.

2:00 p.m.
‘Kilroy Sheep calling Air OP Eagle 3 … Kilroy Sheep calling Eagle 3’
‘Eagle 3 standing by …what’s up Doc ?’
‘Eagle 3 glad to hear your voice …. Shiva, can you come in topside …. through the roof ? Cloud-cover still thick on Kilroy Valley ….. along your usual approach …. but directly above the camp, the clouds have cleared …. We can see the clear blue-sky from here. If you can hover exactly over our camp co-ordinates ….. as you see from the map, we’ll guide you down with all the flash-light beams we can get .. Time’s running out for my patient … I have no equipment to operate on him here … he can live and recover 100% if he has surgery … if not, he’ll be dead within next 6 hours.’
‘Geez Doc … that’s why they say … good friends are worse than enemies …. I have never done this before damnit ! …. But Okay !!!! Stand-by for Casevac Kilroy … will give it my best shot … put in some prayers for your patient …. And me ! Over-n-out’

Every man had his eyes strained for the past 30 minutes …..looking up at the ‘hole-in-the-clouds’ above Kilroy. Ground-winds on Kilroy were around 40kmph. In the medical hut, Virender was groaning, unresponsive ….. his BP 90/50 again. Scrambler-radio-hut had 8 men sitting around in pin-drop silence. Inclement weather was biting …. terrifying. Man versus weather seemed to be impossible odds to overcome. Troops morale was sinking along with Virender’s condition.
He was a good soldier. And a father of 3… !

Suddenly the sight & sound of a Cheetah Helicopter was seen & then ….. heard …. in the blue ‘hole-in-the-clouds’. 18 men rose as one, and flashed their torches upward … everyone held their breath … Would it work ? Some men were beginning to smile … when suddenly the chopper flew out of sight… hidden by clouds!
Gone !!!!
Agonising disappointment !
Dashed hopes silently screaming in every heart. 18-flashlights beaming upward in the daylight.
Could it be seen from up there ?
They must have missed it !!!
15 seconds .. 30 seconds … 1 minute… 2 minutes …and there ! the chopper was seen again … and incredibly, it began to descend !

Everyone knew it was going to be a treacherous descent from that height ….. ground wind-speeds were 60 kmph now, enough to crash the chopper itself ! And yet, it came down … in a broad spiral … round n round n round …spiraling down .. down … 600 feet, 400 feet, 200 feet .. the sound of the chopper filled the whole valley ; as it began to line-up for the landing…the wind speed suddenly picked up…n the chopper swayed n tilted at a terrible angle for a few moments … hung motionless in mid-air for a split-second …. everyone missed a heart-beat … and then gasped in relief … as the chopper rode away on the the winds & circled back, low over the camp, to regain horizontal. The chopper landing site was marked with a giant ‘H’ with 30 kgs of Wakefields Chocolate-powder (!!!), which looked a dull-maroon color on the soft-white snow.

4 men stood outside the medical hut, carrying a stretcher wih Virender lying on it … groaning in pain. When the chopper hovered at 3-4 feet above the ground, desperately trying to maintain horizontal, the stretcher bearers broke into a RUN … bent low at the waist ….. even as the top snow flew around in a fantastic dance ….
At that altitude, even walking fast made a man breathless b’cos the oxygen in the air was so sparse.
And these 4 men … they RAN the 50 metres to the chopper !

The co-pilot opened the door …. The men somehow moved Virender onto the floor of the chopper where the rear-seats had been removed. The chopper blades still blew a furious little storm of soft snow all around. The stretcher bearers, who simply could not breathe, ran back, still bent at the waist.

4:00 p.m.
Capt Shiva of Air-OP flew off carrying Naik Virender to the Field Med Out Post ….. 50kms away. Scrambler hut radioed “successful evacuation” messages to Tiger Base HQs, MO in-charge Base Camp & HQs Field Med Out Post & to Subedar Man Singh at the OP !

And then …. the waiting began !

Capt Manishankar said, it would take 30 minutes to reach the Field Med Out Post. Doc added, another 10 minutes to “receive-casualty”, plus … another 10 minutes to remove clothes & shave the abdomen; 30 minutes to 1 hour more for the surgery. If there was too much abdominal contamination with pus & faecal matter, the thorough abdominal washout could take even longer.
If Virender’s BP crashed & he needed resuscitation intra-operatively … he could still die from Irreversible Septicaemic Shock.

Since there was roughly 2 hours to wait, some men had some tea, the cook-house prepared dinner, Doc knocked-off a few shots of Scotch Whisky …Capt Manishankar went around saying, “let’s Pray, let’s Hope !”
Collective silence. Grim anticipation.

7:00 p.m.
‘Kilroy Sheep calling MO i/c BaseCamp …. request sit-rep on Casevac, Sir !’
‘Stand-by Kilroy Sheep, will inform sit-rep ASAP … you did your job Captain … nothing more you could do … whether he lives or dies, no one can fault you! Hang in there! Over-n-out’
Senior-NCO Kilroy Camp, quietly left the Officers Hut, nodding his head from side-to-side.

7:30 p.m.
‘Kilroy Tiger to Tiger Base HQs … request sit-rep on Casevac, Sir !’
‘Stand-by Manishankar … we have heard that surgery was underway … no info on outcome yet’
Suddenly, seeing the lethargy all around, Capt Manishankar ordered surprise “weapons check parade” in his typical authoritative manner! The men scrambled to comply … the gloom lifted for a while.

Cook reported wastage of food-stuff after supper that evening.

8:00 p.m.
‘Tiger Base HQs to Kilroy Tiger, unable to inform Casevac status update … keep morale of troops high … ‘

8:30 p.m.
They were all gathered in the medical hut. Virender’s misadventure could happen to anyone, anytime ! Everyone of the men felt vulnerable. What was the use of having a Doctor around ? What was the use of having Choppers ?
‘Virender told me he was going to die’ said his buddy, who came from the same village as him.
‘I told him he would come to harm if he didn’t do his ‘pooja ‘ everyday’, said another.

9:00 p.m.
Suddenly, the 2nd-radio-operator from Scrambler-hut entered the medical hut breathlessly.
‘Divisional Commander Brigadier Durga Bahadur, standing by for transmission for you, Captain Manishankar, Sir !’
There was pin drop silence in the Scrambler-hut, when they heard the nasal high-pitched voice of their famous commander ……

‘Captain Manishankar, Capt Ghosh …and all you men at Kilroy …. This is your Divisional Commander from HQs Field Med Out Post ….. I wish to confirm ……that I have just spoken to Naik Virender Singh after his recovery … I repeat … I have just spoken to Naik Virender Singh after his recovery ….. from General Aneasthesia ….. his operation ….. his operation …… was a complete success ! The surgeon informed me …….. that he had a very severe condition … and could have died … if he hadn’t had this Surgery in time.
I congratulate … all of you !

This re-affirms our belief in our entire military organization …. be it the grit & determination & bravery of our men or the effective logistics of our comunications system protocols & airborne medical casevac & the Army Medical Corps !

Tell the jawans … that all the Gods were with us … and no matter what …we will winnnnn !

Men, I’m proud to go into battle with you. God Bless you all ! Over-n-Out’.

(26 soldiers in the Scrambler-radio hut … Officers, JCOs, NCOs & Sepoys … were smiling … …with tears in every eye!!)

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