UAB trauma nurse treats injured soldiers in combat zone

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Lynne Vining has spent her entire career at UAB. The two-time UAB graduate of the UAB School of Nursing has worked in UAB Hospital for 23 years as staff nurse, charge nurse and nurse manager of Trauma and Burn units and transferred into the Medical Intensive Care Unit as nurse manager in the past two years.

Lynne Vining poses with one of the therapy dogs in the NATO Role 3 Hospital in Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan, where she is the team leader.

But right now, she is at war.

Vining is a lieutenant in the Navy serving as an intensive-care nurse specializing in combat trauma. She is the team leader at the NATO Role 3 Hospital in Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan, in support of Operation Noble Eagle and Enduring Freedom — dirt sailors. “That’s what we call ourselves since we are nowhere near water or a ship,” Vining says.

Vining has been on the mind of many co-workers since her deployment began in February. She’s been in contact with friends and colleagues through e-mail during her time overseas, sending a note home when she can.

“She’s a very patriotic person,” says Pamela Autrey, Ph.D., administrative director for Medical Nursing. “She’s very open about who she is and loves what she does, both at the hospital and the military.”

Vining’s first e-mail was sent in early March to colleagues Velinda Block, chief nursing officer of UAB Hospital, nurse Jennifer Oswald and Autrey. Vining described in vivid detail what her life had been like in the first few short weeks in Afghanistan.

“Greetings from Sand Land,” her note began. “We are here and all settled in after a few weeks … got broke in rather quickly with rocket attacks on day two. The first few days were a little frustrating as this place is confusing as far as directions go. I did learn where the bunkers were, and from that point I learned my way around. I was also without communication home the first 48 hours, but now everything is set and I am talking to mom each day, which makes me very happy.”

Vining describes the conditions as rigid.

“The sand here is constantly blowing and has the consistency of baby powder,” she says. “Even if you can’t see it, you feel it in your eyes, nose and throat anytime you are outside. At night if you look up into a light you can definitely see the stuff you have been breathing all day.”

Travel is tricky with cars all over the road. Even though her hospital is only a mile from her NATO barracks, Vining says her group has to take a zig-zag path to the hospital to avoid the smaller two-lane roads.

“Traffic here is ridiculous,” she says. “You have a higher chance of getting run over by all types of vehicles than anything else.”

Vining says her living quarters are decent and “supposedly” rocket-proof.

“I would like to take their word for it and not find out for sure during my tour,” she says. “The mountains where the rockets come from are at such an angle from my building that I am in good shape.”

The Role 3 Hospital where Vining works has four operating rooms, 16 trauma bays, a clinic and a 35-bed general ward. The working conditions aren’t quite what she’s used to in UAB Hospital. The lack of luxury items forces Vining and her co-workers to be creative, using medical supplies they have on hand.

Vining, who was a member of Alabama’s Army National Guard from 1986-92, says working in trauma and burns at UAB prepared her for combat-zone deployment.

“I always felt the most confident and calm in codes or pretty serious patient situations back home, and I owe that to the leadership at UAB and the trauma surgeons I worked with at the hospital,” Vining says. “[Chief of Trauma/Burns] Loring Rue and [Trauma Surgeon] Sherry Melton and others were teaching me when they didn’t even realize it. We have to know what to do here and get it done. There is no time for the trauma surgeon to tell you what to do. That is the discipline and focus that is expected of those in trauma at UAB Hospital, and that same expectation is what keeps my head on straight here in Afghanistan.”

The injuries Vining sees in Afghanistan are the worst of the worst. Many occur from improvised exploding devices, gunshot wounds and fractures.

“We get our troops, coalition forces and, yes, the others,” Vining says, referring to enemy soldiers. “Eye-to-eye contact with the latter is chilling, but I am getting the hang of it. My 9mm on my hip gives me great comfort. I also have a Navy Seal knife in my boot and a flip-knife on my belt. Never thought I would be practicing nursing with all the extras but you will just have to trust me — you would not want us doing it any other way.”

Autrey has known Vining for almost all of her time at UAB. Vining was her master’s student in the hospital administration program, and the two have become very good friends through the years. The practical jokes they pull on each other — mostly the ones Vining pulls on Autrey — are legendary.

Autrey has two care packages of supplies donated by friends ready to ship. “I’m holding my breath about how much it’s going to cost to ship them,” she says. “It was $15 to ship a small box to my daughter in Florida. We’ve got a lot of stuff to send her.”

Autrey, a former Army captain in the nurse corps and member of the Army helicopter pilot program, says she asked Vining once why she wanted to join the Navy as a nurse and serve in a combat zone.

“She said because it’s the right thing to do, and I’m glad I’m doing it,” Autrey says. “That’s Lynne. She’s awesome and just an unbelievable person.”

“This was on my bucket list,” Vining says of being commissioned and serving overseas.

Vining misses a lot of things about home — her mom (whom she calls every day), family and friends, her dogs, Diet Mountain Dew and co-workers all are on that list. “I do miss my staff and team mates, and wish I could give them a big hug and word of encouragement when they need it,” she says.

But she’s more than halfway through her nine-month deployment and knows she will see them all in September. For now, Vining’s e-mails certainly convey the sentiments that she’s right where she belongs at the moment — among the sandstorms, chaos and her fellow soldiers, especially those she treats.

She has watched young men and women reduced from strong, upright soldiers to triple and quadruple amputees flying through the ER doors. They are almost always awake, tourniquets to all extremities and no breathing tubes when they come in.

“But they look over at you and say, ‘So glad you are here. Thank you. I know I am going to be alright now,’” Vining says. “The visuals of the injuries do not affect me as much as their strength and will to survive — and they do survive.”

Bedside Purple Heart medal presentations often follow these traumas. Those, she says, are never easy.

“Those are hard to get through without tears, so I don’t even try,” Vining says. “There are no tears of pity but tears full of respect, admiration and love for your fallen comrade and their commitment to sacrifice. They are my sons, my brothers, my daughters and my sisters. I am not sure how anyone could serve in the Role 3 and not relate to those emotions.”

Vining shares her experiences — good and bad — with her friends in her e-mails home. She’s glad to get an opportunity to remind everyone of the dangers our enlisted men and women face each day.

“You guys please keep these young men on the front lines in your thoughts and prayers,” she wrote in her first e-mail home in early March. “You guys take care. Love and miss you all.”

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