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article imageBrussels attack doctors treat 'war' wounds, 'shredded' bodies

By Joshua Melvin (AFP)     Mar 23, 2016 in World

"Shredded" bodies, mangled limbs and charred flesh: the victims of the Brussels terror attacks were rushed to hospital suffering the type of wounds normally seen in combat zones, doctors said Wednesday.

"It's war," said Jacques Creteur, head of the intensive care unit at Erasme hospital in the Belgian capital. "It's the kind of trauma seen in war."

His hospital, which cared for 16 victims, was among those around Belgium swamped by a wave of casualties after assailants triggered blasts at Zaventem airport and a subway train that killed 31 and wounded 270 people.

Three patients were still hanging between life and death at Erasme on Wednesday.

Checking off the list of injuries, Creteur said: "Limbs torn off, impacts from flying glass and metal shrapnel -- either from the bomb or, for example, furniture -- head trauma, vascular lesions and fractures."

As a result, saving the victims' lives called for the type of medicine more commonly practised in combat field hospitals than in a modern metropolis that is the symbolic heart of the European Union.

An ambulance leaves Brussels Airport in Zaventem following an attack on March 22  2016
An ambulance leaves Brussels Airport in Zaventem following an attack on March 22, 2016
Patrick Stollarz, AFP/File

"On many of the patients we did what we call 'damage control', where a first operation is done to stop the hemorrhaging or if a limb is completely smashed ... and that's it," Creteur said.

Trying to fix too many of a patient's injuries during one surgery is very risky for the severely injured -- the loss of blood, the risk of complications or other problems can put the person in mortal danger. The doctors will address the further problems as the patient stabilises.

Creteur added: "It's combat surgery. The army are specialists in damage control."

Making matters worse, the full havoc wrought on a human body by a massive explosion is not immediately obvious. The blast wave emitted by a large detonation can damage the brain, lungs and intestines without leaving any entrance wounds.

- 'Combination of circumstances' -

The Belgian flag flies at half-staff in front of the military hospital Koningin Astrid-Reine Astrid ...
The Belgian flag flies at half-staff in front of the military hospital Koningin Astrid-Reine Astrid in Neder-over-Heembeek in Brussels on March 23, 2016
Nicolas Maeterlinck, BELGA/AFP

Finding those wounds is a race against the clock for doctors who use various techniques, including surgery and full body scans to pinpoint the damage before it is too late.

For the most seriously hurt, just surviving the attacks will not be the end of the impact on their lives, doctors said. The patients potentially face years of physical rehabilitation, which can be trying for people recovering from routine injuries.

But for these victims, the struggle to recover will also include battles against depression, post-traumatic stress and fighting against the terror of once again being in a crowded place or climbing aboard a metro train.

The doctors at Erasme said they have seen plenty of major injuries -- nasty car crashes and explosions caused by natural gas leaks. But to see so many people at once who were so badly injured left them moved.

"These patients were wounded, shredded ... so it's rather a tragic state to see them in," said Christian Melot, head of the emergency department at Erasme.

King Philippe and Queen Mathilde of Belgium walk past soldiers after paying a visit to victims at Er...
King Philippe and Queen Mathilde of Belgium walk past soldiers after paying a visit to victims at Erasme hospital in Brussels, on March 23 2016
Dirk Waem, Belga/AFP

The doctors witnessed the horror of the victims' injuries but also the cruel circumstances of how some ended up being caught in the attacks.

Melot said he spoke with the family of a young man who was rushed to Erasme with heavy bleeding, burns and multiple injuries in the wake of the explosions.

Earlier that day his mother had called him and told him there had been an attack at Zaventem and not to take the metro, but he was not concerned.

"He said 'Yeah, but it's at Zaventem. It doesn't have anything to do with the metro," Melot said. "He took the metro. He was blown up at Maalbeek station."

"It's a combination of circumstances that is really unbelievable, but unfortunately that is what happened to him."

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