Late last summer, UNC Hospitals ear, nose and throat nurse Katie Sams was talking by phone to her husband, Alex, a U.S. Army reservist serving at Camp Leatherneck in southern Afghanistan, and noticed that he had nasal congestion.
“He said they’d had a lot of sandstorms, and he was having trouble breathing because so much had gotten into his nose and sinuses,” she said.
The next day, she emailed Dr. Brent Senior, an ENT surgeon she works with, asking whether he thought the sales rep for the sinus rinse kits they used at the hospital might have a few extras they could send to the soldiers in Alex’s unit.
Senior replied that he was heading to a conference in a few days and would see the CEO of the company, California-based NeilMed.
That’s how Sams and Senior accidentally became the middlemen in a $2 million donation program that is shipping as many as 100,000 sinus wash kits and 100,000 bottles of a nasal-moisturizing gel spray to troops in dusty Afghanistan, Iraq and other duty stations overseas.
“We get boxes of, like 20 kits, and when I asked Dr. Senior I was thinking maybe they would send one box over,” said Sams. “I really feel like I didn’t do anything, all I did was ask one question and God took care of the rest.”
Nina Mehta, president of NeilMed, said the company had sent some smaller shipments to troops before, after requests from family or friends. But after Senior asked for help they began to think bigger.
“We decided that we wanted to make a larger effort to help more people because this problem is so common there,” she said. “It’s over-the-counter so here, you can just drive to a pharmacy or Walmart, but in Afghanistan you don’t have that option, and the dust is just everywhere.”
The dust is hardly a Taliban-like danger, but it affects all the tens of thousands of troops in the south and in other parts of the country, too.
It’s not common knowledge among civilians here, but the airborne sand and dust in Afghanistan, particularly in the arid south, is pervasive and daunting. In some places, drifts of talcum-like powder can accumulate nearly waist-deep. On U.S. and NATO military bases in the south – such as the massive Camp Leatherneck in Helmand Province and Kandahar Airfield near the city of Kandahar – if the wind isn’t blowing it in from nearby deserts, heavy vehicles are often kicking it up.
Some of the troops refer to the fine-particle version as “moon dust.”
“There will be some days where our visibility is limited to less than 100 meters (length of a football field) and you’ll find yourself burying your face in your t-shirt,” wrote U.S. Army Capt. Dallas Austin in an email interview from his post at Kandahar Airfield, where he commands a helicopter maintenance troop and flies Kiowa helicopters.
“The dust will linger for days until that talc dust finally settles. It’s amazing what kind of crud you see when you blow your nose after a dust storm.”
Helicopters send sand flying
The extraordinary amount of dust lying around is particularly noticeable, he wrote, when helicopters try to set down anywhere that hasn’t been covered with rock or concrete for a proper landing area.
“It’s a big deal trying to land on anything non-improved out here,” he wrote. “The bigger the rotor disk, the bigger the dust cloud.”
Around base, it coats the floors and just every other surface. And often it seems like everyone on the base has congestion.
That’s because the effect of all those airborne particles is drastic on the complex mucus system that works to keep sinuses clean and moist, said Senior, the ENT surgeon. The nasal passages are lined with cells that have hair-like cilia that push mucus through, keeping everything washed out. But a hefty dose of sand or dust can coat everything and bring that to a halt, and in some cases lead to inflammation and other problems.
“We’ve got studies that shows that stuff just shuts down everything,” he said.
People can often adapt to dry, arid climates, he said, but until they do, dry nasal passages can cause problems, too, so the fluid is a good thing, too.
The wash is a little more complex that simply squirting a solution up your nose. You squirt it in one nostril, and it washes through the sinuses and out the other.
The idea can be a little scary, but typically users get accustomed to it and even come to want regular replays of its cleansing effect.
“It’s not particularly pleasant the first time, but people kind of get addicted to it after awhile.” And more to the point, it works well to wash the sand and dust out, he said.
Getting the word out
Their department has long used it on patients, said Dr. Grace Kim, an ENT resident who works with Senior and Sams at UNC and who is engaged to Austin, the Army captain. She heard about the donations through the grapevine and asked them if she could get involved, too.
It took a little while to get out the first two shipments – 1,000 wash kits and 1,000 bottles of spray each to Sams’ unit and Austin’s – but now they have a method, in part thanks to Austin’s helping them work through the red tape to get the military’s permission for the shipments.
Now they’re working on how to get the word out to all the suffering troops so that their units know where to go to request shipments.
Mehta said it will probably take eight months to a year to push it all out to the troops, but that she’s sure that will happen.
They surely need it, Sands said. Several of the soldiers in her husband’s unit are still raving about the wash. “They were so congested for so long, just being able to get all that junk washed out was just huge,” she said.