PEORIA, Ill. - The commander of the 182nd Medical Group in Peoria, Ill., returned from a rare seven-week deployment to Antarctica Jan. 4, where he provided medical care at the McMurdo Station there.
Two weeks after arriving, Air National Guard Col. Steven S. Norris found himself in the middle of a mass-casualty event when a South Korean Kamov helicopter crash-landed and caught fire on the deck of a research ship.
The doctor deployed to Antarctica as a flight surgeon in support of Operation Deep Freeze's mission to provide airlift for the National Science Foundation. There, the Iraq and Afghanistan War veteran with almost two decades of military service experienced the most limited and remote working conditions of his career.
Norris, of Morton, Ill., had just returned to the station from an all-day mission to the South Pole on Dec. 4, 2013, when he received word that four helicopter crash victims were being transported to his clinic from 200 miles away at Terra Nova Bay. When they arrived, it would become Norris and his team's job to keep the critically wounded Koreans alive and fly them on an LC-130 Hercules to the nearest medical center in Christchurch, New Zealand.
At that point, Norris knew his duty day was far from over.
"I had to prepare the hospital, four different trauma bays, and get everyone together and assign teams, and do all the stuff you do in preparation for a mass casualty," he said.
His team that night was one Air Force flight medic and one flight nurse. The event became part of a 38-hour shift that resulted in saving those four lives.
The crash victims suffered burns, spine and pelvic fractures, and internal bleeding. The worst had burns on 40 percent of his body.
When the patient arrived, he was not doing well and his burns were so severe that his body had swollen, Norris said. "The key in those situations is to get them to establish a definitive airway, but with his face and head so swollen, that was very difficult," the doctor explained.
The crash victims survived, despite the limits and difficulties of practicing medicine in McMurdo Station's small, desolate arctic facility.
"It's kind of like an outpatient clinic, or a prompt care, and then some two or three hospital beds," said Norris. "It's really the only hospital on the continent."
Besides the clinic's size constraints, materials were also a commodity. It was a stark difference from Norris's experiences deployed in the Middle East.
"You have limited supplies. You can't be resupplied. You just have to be prepared to do everything and be able to stabilize any sort of situation. You have to be confident in your ability to do that, and be able to do it, because there's nobody else there," he said.
Norris, however, found dealing with stress to be similar to any other intense situation he had experienced in his medical career.
"The number one thing is stay calm," he said. "Support everyone around you so that they feel relaxed and calm, and just concentrate on the task you have in front of you. I think if the physician is calm and speaks calmly and doesn't appear to be rattled or in a hurry, then everyone else feels relaxed."
Norris has had 15 years to practice that philosophy. He received his doctorate of medicine in 1999 from the University of Illinois College of Medicine and received a commission in the Air Force the next year.
He also serves in the civilian sector as a hospital physician at Peoria's OSF Saint Francis Medical Center, having previously worked in family practice, emergency care and executive leadership positions. After serving as the 182nd Medical Group's chief of aerospace medicine, he was promoted to its commander in December 2010.
Norris now oversees 68 traditional and full-time medical specialists that service the more than 1,100 guardsmen responsible for the 182nd Airlift Wing's state and federal missions.