Shouting over the whine of a 1,700-horsepower engine and overhead rotors, helicopter medivac crews in war zones have a hard time passing patient information to doctors.
Pilot Richard Ferguson of the Nevada National Guard dealt with the problem during a recent deployment to Afghanistan.
"In the bustle of trauma, a lot of information would get lost because everyone is in such a rush. A lot of time, it would hurt the patient."
Ferguson had the idea of using Palm Pilots to take notes about a patient's condition, vital signs, initial diagnosis and treatment. The data could be printed up or, if there was too little time, the Palm Pilot could be handed over.
"We'd do what's called a run sheet. It's basically a diagram of the human body, showing, you know, laceration here, hole here, burn here."
Ferguson's unit, the 126th Medical Company (Air Ambulance) out of Reno, was given the Association of Medical Directors of Information Systems Award for 2004. The award salutes organizations that improve medicine by the direct use of information technology. They were the only group out of 67 nominees to win the award.
Using personal digital assistants on the battlefield made perfect sense to Ferguson, who works as the information management branch chief for the National Guard in Carson City.
"I didn't know we were going to win an award," he said. "It just made sense with my job in (information technology). It just seemed like the easy way to do it."
The hand-held computers made a difference -medics estimated they increased the speed of data transfer by 60 percent.
In the southern Afghanistan town of Dehra Wod, Ferguson's unit got a call about a young boy who had been shot in the back of the head by an AK-47. He was reported dead.
"But we went anyway because he was a civilian and a child and because that's what we do," Ferguson said.
They found the boy alive and awake. Rob Walters, a medic who works for the Sacramento Fire Department, kept him alive until they got him back to the hospital at Kandahar Airport. From there, he was sent to the U.S. for surgery. On his return trip, he posed for a picture with the helicopter crew.
"He held his thumb up, so we all did, too," said Ferguson.
The hospital at Kandahar Airport was a bombed-out building. It was known as the "Taliban's last stand." A few miles down the road was Tarnak Farms, the Al-Qaida training camp seen on news footage where men in turbans cross monkey bars and other obstacles.
"We bombed the crap out of it - that and the airport," Ferguson said.
He had tried to use the Palm Pilots during his deployment to Kosovo, but they didn't work as well there. Flights were too quick to get the data entered properly.
"Afghanistan is so big - it's the size of Texas - so we'd fly for hours to go get people, we'd have the time to stabilize a patient."
Ferguson's unit was also given a Winged-S award by Sikorsky Helicopters.
"They give the award to units who do spectacular rescues (in Sikorsky-built aircraft)," Ferguson said.
That rescue was March 29, 2003, in southern Afghanistan. Special-forces troops were pinned down by Taliban gunfire. Some of the Americans were critically wounded. Going in would mean exposing the medivac crew to enemy weapons. But when they heard the soldiers were dying, they decided to land.
"That's our tenet as a medivac crew - to go in when called," Ferguson said.
Pilot Thomas Delaney explained how the Taliban would ambush Americans doing weekly checks for weapons caches in caves.
"Then they'd run back across the border to Pakistan. They'd try to get out of there before the Apaches and the A10s would come in. That's what most of our emergency medivacs turned out to be."
With the assistance of hand-held computers, the crew helped one critically wounded soldier survive the 40-minute flight to the hospital. Two others didn't make it.
During its deployment to Afghanistan, the 126th Medical Company flew 127 combat missions and transported more than 150 people.
Representatives of the unit will pick up their awards at the Physician Computer Connection Symposium in San Diego on Wednesday.
About 15 members of the company remain on active duty deployments at locations including Fort Carson, Colo., and Fort Hood, Texas.
Contact Karl Horeis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 881-1219.