Rossland orthopedic surgeon Steve McVicar was recently awarded the General Service Medal for Southwest Asia. The medal is for McVicar’s significant contribution while he was deployed in Afghanistan in 2007 and 2010.
McVicar said he first decided to go when, in 2006, he read in a medical journal that Canadian Forces surgeons were getting burned out since the war in Afghanistan was stretching on longer than originally planned.
“There were only four or five of them and they might need help,” McVicar said. “So I called the Department of National Defence up and said I’m a former Navy officer and I’d be happy to help out.”
McVicar is an orthopedic surgeon with an interest in trauma. He said he didn’t think they would get back to him, but then shortly after he got the call. Within four months he was in Afghanistan.
“So I was one of the first civilian surgeons to go into Afghanistan,” he said, referring to his first stint in the spring of 2007.
“Then when I came back (to Canada) they asked if I wouldn’t mind going again. That ended up being July-August and that was under the (American) occupancy.”
At that time, the United States army was running the hospital so he worked with them.
He said he was a sort of Canadian surgeon representative for the Canadian Army working under the U.S. Army in Kandahar.
“And that was it. I was the last civilian surgeon to go back and now Canada is out of the war,” he said. “So I won’t be going back.”
McVicar said it could be traumatic at times.
“In 2007 there were a lot of civilian causalities, a lot of pediatric casualties. I don’t know why,” he said. “The war was quite intense. There were a lot of battles going on. We ended up seeing a large number of Afghan civilians and kids. That was quite hard.”
He said they did a lot of amputations and there was a lot of death. Then when he went back with the American army in 2010, it was mostly American soldiers being killed.
He said the one major difference was the severity of the injuries from 2007 to 2010.
“The injuries in 2010 were the worst that I’d ever seen. I don’t know if the land mines were bigger or what, but in 2007, if somebody was injured by a land mine, from the knee below would be off.
“When I went back in 2010 it was both legs and an arm off. The legs would be off right at the hip. So the death rate was quite high. It was a lot of young American soldiers getting killed.”
McVicar said if somebody comes in with those kinds of injuries there are things they can do to save them.
“Basically you stop the bleeding, you get more blood to them, you try to resuscitate them. The statistics show that if you came in to the emergency department at the Kandahar airfield and you were still alive, the chance of staying alive was 97, 98 per cent. We had a really good team there.”
He said a lot of Afghan kids came in and they did CPR on them, but they were already dead.
The resuscitations weren’t successful, since there was just no blood in their circulatory systems.
To him it seemed like the battle had become more intense between the Taliban and the U.S.
McVicar said that according to American statistics, the war was more intense than anything they experienced in Iraq and compared the casualty rate to Vietnam standards.
He said any surgeon, after two months, begins to burn out and it’s time to go home and take a break.
“I guess it’s the death that was hard to deal with, day-after-day. You have to kind of keep your head straight about you. You have to operate with your head, not your heart, that’s for sure.”
One of the most difficult things was seeing the grief Afghan civilians went through. A family would come in and two of their sons would be dead.
“They would still thank you for trying to save them and doing the best you can. That’s what I found hard,” he said.
“I mean these people live in a tent with two goats and a donkey and that’s it. They’re very malnourished and not very clean. It was hard seeing that, the grief that people go through.”