Bored, brave and brilliant: the UK medics in the Afghan war zone

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Kim Sengupta reports on a remarkable study of Camp Bastion hospital

A day job teaching at a business school might not be ideal combat-zone training – especially for a Cambridge academic whose previous fieldwork involved studying university rowers. But Mark de Rond's six-week stint at the military hospital in Camp Bastion, the main UK base in Helmand, has produced a remarkable study into the ways medics treating terrible injuries cope with their working conditions.

Dr de Rond found that the doctors and nurses were dedicated and professional but also, at times, highly competitive.

"At Bastion, you see the best teamwork you will ever see. But these are driven people, and some of the qualities that make them brilliant also make them difficult. The surgeons will occasionally compete for interesting work, and interfere with the work of others when they have none of their own.

"Unable to cope with boredom, they will hope for new work to come in but then feel guilty about this – because these are people, often civilians. But the acceptance of such paradoxes is vital to the psychological safety of the surgical teams, allowing them to perform more effectively."

The need for best medical practices had led to a relaxation of the rules of hierarchy, he noted.

"The 'de-ranking' meant that people were able to speak more openly, admit mistakes, offer suggestions, or even criticism without worrying about that going on their records, upsetting the chain of command. It worked."

During his time at Camp Bastion, where medical staff treat both service personnel and civilians, Dr de Rond took photographs, which have been put on display online by Cambridge University, where he works.

The medical centre at Bastion has grown in six years from a row of tents to the most advanced of its kind, with treatments pioneered there, especially for trauma, being adopted in civilian hospitals across the world. But many of the staff, experienced in dealing with accidents and emergencies back home, find the experience emotionally and physically draining.

Dr de Rond, a Reader in Strategy and Organisation at Cambridge Judge Business School, had never been in a conflict situation before and knew that an induction course he had taken back in the UK would only prepare him so much for what he would experience. His past research had involved spending prolonged periods with the Cambridge rowing team and comedians.

The 44-year-old academic is a specialist on ethnography, which he describes as an "old fashioned attempt at trying to understand teams by living with them under similar conditions".

He said: "I wanted to see how the staff at Bastion coped with what was going on all around them, how the team functioned under all that pressure. I was there just to observe and record what was going on, but, of course, I could not help being affected myself. It is very difficult seeing a child missing a leg, or a teenage soldier who is a double amputee."

The Bastion hospital, he believes, was "a safer place than many psychologically" because of the safety valves in place. There was humour from a "dark heart" needed to balance the constant suffering and death. Somewhat surreal situations such as when a nurse taking a pair of amputated legs to an incinerator bumped into a man in a Santa Claus costume, on his way to a mid-summer party, eased tension.

Dr de Rond left Bastion, unsurprisingly perhaps, feeling changed. "When I was done, I left almost all my clothes behind, except the clothes I was travelling in, because I felt they were all tainted. I wanted to try and shed all that stuff. Maybe it's an overreaction, but how do you cope with all this stuff? I did not dream once during the six weeks I was there, but now I am beginning to have these dreams."

It has been hard for him to talk to his wife, Roxanne, friends and colleagues about the things he has seen, what he felt. He finds himself wondering whether some of the things he does in his professional life are meaningful.

"The academic work we do can often feel like a game of our own devising that doesn't make much of a practical difference to the world. There is an inability to effectively communicate what we do – I think photography can play a key role in improving this. And I hope these photographs help in understanding a truly remarkable place."

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Sir David Attenborough
people
Life and Style
Young girl and bowl of cereal
food + drink
News
Comic miserablist Larry David in 'Curb Your Enthusiasm'
peopleDirector of new documentary Misery Loves Comedy reveals how he got them to open up
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Sport
football
Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Life and Style
David Bowie by Duffy
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
News
advertisingVideo: The company that brought you the 'Bud' 'Weis' 'Er' frogs and 'Wasssssup' ads, has something up its sleeve for Sunday's big match
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
i100
Environment
Dame Vivienne Westwood speaking at a fracking protest outside Parliament on Monday (AP)
environment
Life and Style
tech
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: This post arises as a result of the need to...

Tradewind Recruitment: Class Teacher Required ASAP In Uminster

£120 - £150 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: I am recruiting on instruction o...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wimbledon, SW London

£24000 - £28000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wim...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness