POINT HOPE, Alaska --
“This is just like Kuwait or Iraq, but instead of being brown, it’s all white,” Navy Capt. David Rodriguez said as he looked out of a National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter circling a rural Alaskan Village.
The sub-zero temperatures changed his mind quickly when he landed after the hour and a half flight from Kotzebue, Alaska, the command center for Innovative Readiness Training Arctic Care 2013. IRT Arctic Care is a multi-service humanitarian and training program that brings medical, dental, and veterinary services to 12 villages in Alaska--Point Hope being the farthest one.
Rodriguez, the command chaplain for 4th Marine Logistics Group, Marine Forces Reserve, was notified about a suicide attempt earlier that day, April 16. He was on his way to provide spiritual support to the service members of IRT Arctic Care who were the first responders to the incident.
Upon his arrival, he said he noticed the weary looks of the Reserve Marine, Navy, Army, and Air Force team members. He needed to find out what happened.
“When the police were called in at 3:30 in the morning, they went over to the school where our medical team was staying,” Rodriguez said. “It so happened that one of the corpsman had a hard time sleeping, so he moved from the common area to an area that was near a door that the police were banging on, otherwise they would not have heard them.”
Despite the late hour and austere weather outside, Cmdr. Michael Luttrell, Point Hope team officer in charge, and Capt. David Bianchi, an ear, nose, and throat specialist, gathered a team of Navy doctors and corpsman consisting of Capt. David Serafini, Capt. Brent Hutson, Lt. John Morris, Petty Officer 2nd Class Mark Harris, and Petty Officer 3rd Class Thomas Guenther. They were joined by two community health aids/practitioners with the Community Health Aid Program as they all rushed to the victim who had shot himself with a rifle.
“We found him face down on the bed and somewhat combative as there was an obvious gunshot to his face,” said Luttrell, also a medical provider/nurse practitioner during IRT Arctic Care. “We had never worked together before, much less on this type of circumstance. But we were able to quickly devise a plan of attack to help out this gentleman.”
They immediately went to work despite being unsure of locations of different equipment and supplies, said Luttrell, a native of Durham, N.C.
As different life-saving steps they took failed to recuperate the trauma, Luttrell said the team had to pull a “Hail Mary” move and establish an oral makeshift airway. He credited Bianchi for providing help with the immediate plan of action.
Through astonishing teamwork and help from telecommunicating with emergency responders in Kotzebue, Luttrell said they successfully operated on and stabilized the victim and secured him for evacuation to Anchorage, Alaska.
“They looked very exhausted by the time I got there. They were up all night saving this guy’s life,” said Rodriguez, a native of Hollister, Calif. “I knew that this was the time for me to go to work.”
Rodriguez met with each member of the team and made sure they were mentally and emotionally fit after the traumatizing event. After assuring their wellness, he consulted with the locals.
As Point Hope is a small village of more than 650 people, many of them were deeply affected by the incident as they knew the victim or were related to him. In a state where the suicide rate is twice that of the continental United States, Rodriguez knew that reaching out to them was an important part of his mission as well.
“They were glad that I was there. They said they needed to talk to somebody,” said Rodriguez, also a minister at Mayflower Presbyterian Church in Pacific Grove, Calif. “It was healing to them.”
One of the CHAP/S that Rodriguez talked to, Lisa Shindler, said that he was always there to administer kindness to everyone.
“He has a sweet, gracious and kind personality,” said Shindler, a coordinator-instructor and a physician assistant for CHAP. “He just seemed to float to all the right places. It’s like everything was right in the world for a minute.”
Rodriguez reassured everyone that he would keep Point Hope in his prayers. He reached back to his church and asked them to do the same. After the wounded man was safely evacuated to Anchorage, his family joined him in his recovery. Rodriguez also talked with him over the phone to ensure proper spiritual recovery.
“This helped them open up and talk about their feelings,” he said. “They went away hopeful. One of the things I hope people walk away with is the sense that even though you go through a traumatic experience, help is available and the help will enable you to recover.”
After talking with Rodriguez, Shindler walked away believing that the medical team’s presence definitely was not a chance of luck.
“Some people are meant to survive”, said Shindler. “They were predestined to be there.”
Rodriguez smiled as he agreed.
“It’s not surprising that the place is called Point Hope,” he said. “There was a lot of hope there that day.”
As word about the actions of the service members spread across the villages supported in the exercise, locals receiving care from other teams thanked them for their work. After all, who could know which team might be the next to perform a miracle in their remote communities?