Coast Guardsmen thank Air Force ECMO team

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt Matthew Rosine
  • Air Force Print News
The men and women of the U.S. Coast Guard are in the business of saving other people's lives. It is not very often that someone has to save the life of one of their own.

But, on July 22, 2006, Airmen from Wilford Hall Medical Center at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, came to the rescue of one Coast Guard family, saving the life of their four-day-old son, Stuart.

And now, on March 29, Coast Guardsmen from District 7 and Sector San Juan in Puerto Rico made a pilgrimage of recognition to Wilford Hall to offer a small token of their appreciation and to say thank you.

"It is the least we can do to recognize true heroes who saved the life of a young child and took care of our Coast Guard family," said Coast Guard Capt. Jim Tunstall, commander, Coast Guard Sector San Juan. "It is absolutely awe-inspiring and it motivates me to continue in what I do. To see how much it means to one my people only helps me know how much it means to those that we go out and assist."

After a "perfect" pregnancy last year, Stuart Scott Parker was born to Stephanie and Coast Guard Lt. Seth Parker in Puerto Rico.

About two hours after their son's birth, the Parkers received the terrible news -- there was a serious problem. At first the doctors thought Stuart had pneumonia. He was moved to the neonatal intensive care unit for observation. Later that evening, the family learned that Stuart's lungs were not working properly. The baby was then moved to another local hospital where he received what the doctors called a "miracle gas" treatment. This nitrous oxide gas system stimulates the lungs to help the patient breathe on his or her own.

Twenty-one hours after his birth, the Parkers were told their new-born son was going to die. The only hope for Stuart was an Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation, or ECMO, machine. This machine provides partial heart-lung bypass to infants and children suffering from severe cardiopulmonary failure. It is made to do the work of the heart and lungs -- to oxygenate the blood. The news went from bad to worse for the family. There are no ECMO machines in Puerto Rico.

But, Stuart's guardian angel knew who to call: the Wilford Hall ECMO team. They are the only institution or team in the world with an air-transportable ECMO with global reach. And, within a few precious hours, the team landed in Puerto Rico, stabilize their newest patient and flew him back to Wilford Hall for additional treatment.

Eight months later, a happy and healthy Stuart plays with his older sister, Sydney, and tries to take his first steps into the hands of his eternally grateful parents.

Now, his father, along with a few of his fellow Coast Guardsmen, stand inside Wilford Hall's neonatal intensive care unit to offer their thanks and pass on their gratitude to the Airmen and Soldier who saved one of their Coast Guard family. 

"We are life-savers. We save lives every day, but giving the recognition to those people who deserve it, it fulfills your heart," said Coast Guard Master Chief Petty Officer Ted Fuller. He is the Coast Guard's Seventh District command master chief.

The Seventh District commander, Admiral Dave Kunkel, wanted to attend the ceremony personally but was unable to make the trip at the last minute. Master Chief Fuller came in the Admiral's place.

"We are mission oriented, but we can't do the mission if our families aren't being taken care of," said Master Chief Fuller. "And, to know that we have teams like this to back us up, especially in regions like Puerto Rico, St. Thomas and St. Croix where we have Coasties deployed with very (limited) medical facilities. So for me, it gives me great trust as I send someone down there that there are folks that will look out for our kids and our families if things go wrong.  I appreciate the opportunity to be able to come here, representing the Admiral and recognizing these hard-working folks who saved the life of our youngest shipmate -- young Stuart."

The Coast Guardmen's recognition was an appreciated thanks for the medics who flew Puerto Rico on last summer's mission of mercy.

"It is wonderful," said Staff Sgt. Joseph Runyan, a medical technician in the 59th Medical Wing's neonatal intensive care unit. "Usually, you get the letters and things like that, but it is not very often that you get a branch (of the military services) to bring members of its leadership up to meet with you and give you plaques and tell you how appreciative they are. It is a rarity.  

And it is this message that one Coast Guardsman, a grateful father, hopes each member of Wilford Hall's ECMO team understands.

"To be the father on the receiving end:  you can't say enough about these guys," Lieutenant Parker said as his face flushed with emotion. "How do you know when you get through to someone, when to tell them how much you appreciate them coming down and saving your son's life?

"You tell them that you appreciate them, love them, and they just respond to you as if they are just doing their job," he said. "I know being in the Coast Guard, in the search and rescue missions, to have that mentality of 'it is just your job' but the end result is that a baby's life was saved and I'm just fortunate enough to be in the shoes that it was my son this time."

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