In-Flight Surgery Performed Aboard 'Air Hospital'

Doctors on a turbulence-free flight performed surgery 19,000 feet above the jungles of Colombia on the inaugural outing of the military's "Air Hospital" (search), the country's new effort to save the lives of troops wounded in its war against Marxist insurgents.

"The plane was steady and so was my hand," lead surgeon Ricardo Barragan said over the drone of the C-130's engines Monday night. He had just made a pressure-relieving incision down the arm of a man badly burned in an accident at a military base.

The U.S.-funded Air Hospital culminates a year of improvements in medical care for soldiers wounded by anti-personnel mines, rebel snipers and in firefights across this Andean nation.

Three tent hospitals were installed at military bases near the front lines of an offensive called Plan Patriot (search), which is being waged against Marxist rebels deep in Colombia's southern jungles.

The death rate for soldiers wounded in action has fallen by 14 percent this year. Now 19 of every 100 soldiers wounded in action die, said Capt. Francisco Nunez, assistant director of the military's department of health.

In 2003, wounded soldiers waited between 24 and 36 hours to receive medical attention. The average response time is now less than six hours, Nunez said. It is likely to drop even further once the Air Hospital goes into full operation in early 2005.

"We've needed these improvements because next year the fighting will intensify," said Dr. Hector Navarro, the Colombian Defense Ministry's lead medical adviser, who was aboard Air Hospital's inaugural flight.

Inside the plane, cushioned paneling sets apart the sterilized operating room, where cardiographs and other monitors are set up. It looks very much like a normal, albeit cramped, operating room. The United States provided much of the medical equipment, organized the setup of the Air Hospital and helped fund it.

Doctors and nurses in blue surgical scrubs worked over their patient, who was burned by an electrical shock while working on a utility tower at Tres Esquinas military base in southern Colombia.

The operating room, a blood bank and other equipment are stored in containers at Bogota's air base and can be assembled inside any of the military's eight C-130 transport planes in 20 minutes.

At the base on the outskirts of the capital, the pilots, doctors and nurses who staff the Air Hospitals will be waiting for calls to fetch severely wounded soldiers, who will be ferried from the battlefield by helicopter to nearby bases for pickup. The wounded soldiers can be operated on, if turbulence permits, once the plane hits cruising altitude.

One of the most common surgeries will be treating land mine injuries, removing dead tissue from wounds to prevent infection.

"The first hour after the injury is the so-called golden hour, the critical period," said Dr. Lina Mateus, one of about 450 military doctors. "On board we'll be filling them up with antibiotics and incising all the dead tissue."

After landing at the Bogota base, Barragan gave the new Air Hospital a glowing appraisal.

"This was a great inaugural flight," he said. "The pilots were real pros, and the surgery couldn't have gone better. The patient is in very good shape."