Johnson Memorial Health treats Afghan refugees from Camp Atterbury

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FRANKLIN, Ind. — Less than two weeks after the first group of Afghan refugees arrived at Camp Atterbury in Johnson County, officials at Johnson Memorial Health say they’ve already provided a handful of refugees with medical care they can’t currently get at the military base.

“They can’t do surgeries there, they probably can’t really safely deliver babies and do maternity care and neonatal care,” said Dr. Ryan White, chief of staff at Johnson Memorial Health.

The Department of Defense brought a team of roughly 800 military, police and medical personnel to Camp Atterbury when the first wave of evacuees arrived in Indiana.

“They can take care of minor emergency-type injuries and that type of thing,” said Johnson Memorial Health President and CEO Dr. David Dunkle. “But anything more has to go to a local emergency department.”

Dunkle said the primary need is for maternity and prenatal care for Afghan women. There are a couple women in the group who are close to giving birth, he added.

“A lot of these women have not had the prenatal labs, the prenatal ultrasounds that are pretty common here in the United States,” Dunkle said.

In addition, hospital staff have already treated a diabetic who needed insulin.  

“We may see an appendicitis or a gall bladder that’s going to be infected, and they’re going to need to go to the O.R.,” White said. “We’ll certainly care for those patients.”

Initially, White said there was some anxiety over the idea of treating Afghan evacuees.

“Obviously, communication barriers can be a bit of a challenge at times,” he said. “What are their expectations? What kind of health care do they come from verses what we offer here in the United States?”

There was also concern over the notion of adding to the hospital’s patient load. The current COVID-19 surge continues to strain hospital staffs in communities across the nation. According to the state’s COVID-19 dashboard, 12.8% of Johnson County’s ICU beds are currently available.

“The thought that we just may add to that volume and that surge that we feel, that we’re all under right now, it was a little concerning,” White said.

“There are days when every hospital bed in the general area is taken up, and that is scary,” Dunkle said.

Since the initial request from Camp Atterbury, Dunkle and White say leaders at the base have assured them that the COVID-19 surge will not be taken lightly, and they are in contact with other area hospitals to help spread the need around.

“They’ve expressed that they do understand that we are under a lot of stress right now, we have a lot of volume,” White said.

“I really do appreciate the fact that the leadership at Atterbury has told me they realize a lot of the local hospitals are under strain,” Dunkle said.

Officials at Camp Atterbury have said the base could house up to 5,000 refugees over the course of the operation. It’s not clear how long medical services may be needed because nobody knows exactly how long evacuees will be housed at Camp Atterbury, Dunkle said.  

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