30 July 2019
For New Zealand Army Captain Kelsi Nichols, who had long wanted to become a military doctor, serving as a Medical Officer in Iraq’s Camp Taji is something special.
“It’s an honour and a challenge to deploy overseas to look after our countrymen and also our coalition partners,” said Captain Nichols, who is one of about 70 New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) personnel who provide training in Taji with the Australian Defence Force.
“We strive to provide the best care possible and it’s always nice to hear about positive outcomes and expressions of gratitude from patients,” Captain Nichols said.
Her first eight weeks at Taji Medical Treatment Facility, where she works with three other NZDF personnel and 22 Australian troops, were hectic because of a number of emergency cases and medical evacuations.
“Sometimes we get notified by radio that there is an emergency, like when a coalition soldier shot himself in the leg by mistake out on the range,” she said.
“At other times patients turn up on the doorstep, like when another coalition soldier came in looking unwell. We did some tests and found out he was having a heart attack.
“I’m working with a great bunch of people. We get along well and I’m looking forward to spending four more months with them.”
Apart from adjusting to the hot temperatures, which can reach 50 degrees during the day, working in Iraq means Captain Nichols and the rest of the medical team have to carry loaded pistols in their holsters even at work.
“It’s one of the realities of working in Iraq,” she said.
During her down time Captain Nichols still keeps a busy schedule. She runs three evening classes a week on swing dancing and salsa for troops at the camp. She also teaches knitting and crocheting to personnel who are keen to learn and supports the newly formed Taji Sisterhood, a support group for female military personnel and civilian contractors working at the camp.
“I also enjoy mentoring our medics and nurses,” she said. “It’s pretty cool to see the difference it makes to their confidence when seeing primary care patients.”
Before she deployed to Iraq in May, Captain Nichols was based at the Royal New Zealand Air Force Base Auckland in Whenuapai and was training in aviation medicine.
Born in Te Aroha, a small farming town in eastern Waikato, Captain Nichols moved to Tauranga when she started high school.
Encouraged by her stepfather, Brigadier Evan Williams, she enlisted in the Army in 2009, at the end of her second year at medical school. The Army, through its Medical Officer Cadet Scheme, funded the rest of her studies at the University of Auckland in exchange for a return of service.
After graduating in 2012 she worked for a year each at Whakatane Hospital and Taranaki Base Hospital, before being commissioned as an Army officer in 2015.
“I was pretty keen to join because of the opportunities to travel, gain experience overseas and train in things that I’d never do in the civilian world, like military medicine and marksmanship,” Captain Nichols said.
“The physical fitness that gets woven into our work and the camaraderie that we all share were the two other things that attracted me to a career in the Army.”