UMH Nurse Practitioner Learns Life Lessons in Afghanistan

When Julio C. Albornoz, a trauma and critical care nurse in the U.S. Navy Reserve, was dropped in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province wearing 70 pounds of body armor and carrying a pair of guns, there was a planned lull at the British medical unit where he was assigned. For two days, no casualties arrived, no sirens sounded, no one died.

The pace would not let up again. For ten difficult months, Albornoz, ARNP, M.S.N., assistant director of the Elaine and Sydney Sussman Cardiac Catheterization Lab at University of Miami Hospital, worked 12 to 15 hours every day, racing against the clock to pull the critically wounded back from death. He helped stabilize U.S. and British troops blown up by IEDs, Afghans burned by exploding kerosene lamps and enemy combatants who wanted to kill the medical personnel trying to save their lives.

“They were prisoners of war and we had to treat them like any other patient,” said Albornoz, a Miami High and Barry University grad who moved to the U.S. from Colombia at age 13. “It was a real MASH unit. We slept in tents and cots. The hospital was made of trailers linked together. You inhaled dust anywhere you went. It was so dry that for the first few weeks you got nosebleeds just by blowing your nose.”

A Navy reservist for nearly 18 years, Albornoz knew he could be activated at any moment. The father of four had trained one weekend every month and two weeks every year for that possibility, achieving the rank of commander. But when the call came that he would deploy to Germany to care for critically wounded warriors, it took him a month to muster the courage to tell his family he’d be gone a year. When the revised order came that he would head to Afghanistan instead, he never told his mother.

“She found out the truth a few months after I came back,” said Albornoz, who cannot disclose specific dates to protect the safety of current missions. “At first she said, ‘You lied to me,’ but now that I’m back alive and in one piece, she’s bragging to her friends.”

As a nurse who once worked with trauma patients at Jackson Memorial Hospital, Albornoz knew how to distance himself from the carnage he witnessed day after day. “You kind of become numb,” he said. “You have to. You have a mission.”

But it wasn’t easy. He watched too many young soldiers die. He sent many home too maimed to be recognized. And he slowly realized that many injured Afghans would never leave the ill-equipped local hospitals where they were eventually transferred, or survive in a country so unkind to amputees and wheelchairs.

The stark terrain wasn’t gentle on medical personnel, either. A good night’s sleep was as elusive as a good meal. Temperatures soared to a scorching 120 degrees or plunged below zero. Home was a four-by-six-foot space in a 10-man tent, with a hard, narrow cot for a bed, and the bare essentials – uniform, body armor, helmet and gun – all coated in Afghan dust. There were no days off. When the siren sounded, Albornoz reported to the hospital, even if he’d just logged a double shift. He called home only when he could walk 35 minutes across the desert to a U.S. military camp, and wait in the phone line for hours.

But now back home, sleeping in his comfortable bed, holding his new daughter who was born while he was away, and rejoicing in the love of family, friends and co-workers, he doesn’t hesitate to say he’d willingly go back. The rewards of helping others and the lessons learned outlast the hardships.

“You realize the things we thought were necessary are not that important,” Albornoz said. “Once you live through war, material things don’t really matter. Having health and a peaceful existence surrounded by your loved ones – that’s what life is about.”

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