Critical-care teams quick to respond
By Master Sgt. William J. Sharp, 379th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
/ Published October 16, 2003
SOUTHWEST ASIA (AFPN) -- Critical care air transport teams, charged with moving the seriously wounded or ill, have a job similar to firefighters.
“Our gear is packed, ready and positioned near aircraft loading points. We can be airborne in minutes and fly anywhere in the area needed,” said Maj. William H. Cody. He is a team nurse with the 379th Expeditionary Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron at a forward-deployed location. “It’s a lot like teams that respond to fires when the alarm sounds. We have to be just as quick.”
The base is staffed with three, three-person teams -- two active-duty airmen and one reservist -- consisting of a doctor, nurse and respiratory technician. The teams are regionally responsible for patient collection, injury stabilization, airborne care en route and transfer of care to the next echelon of medical support. Patients can be U.S. servicemembers, coalition forces, civilians or whoever may need help.
A single team brings enough stretchers and medical instruments to support multiple patients simultaneously. The equipment, which can weigh 1,000 pounds per kit, includes ventilators, gear to monitor vital signs and intravenous fluids.
“We pack and plan for worst-case scenarios where we might have to care for more patients than expected,” Cody said. “The base’s numerous transport aircraft make it a perfect spot from which to operate.”
Ideally before evacuation, a patient is stabilized at the closest medical facility to where the injury or illness took place. During that time, if the team is needed, it is notified immediately.
“We carry radios, pagers and cell phones to minimize our response time when the notification comes,” said Capt. Cynthia Bond, a team nurse. “Depending on the situation, a patient may be brought to the aircraft with engines running. At other times, there’s time to visit the medical facility at the patient-pickup site and do an assessment prior to transport.”
The teams complement aeromedical evacuation counterparts, and the two routinely fly together. The evacuation teams normally handle nonlife-threatening injuries while the critical-care teams have special training in managing critical patients in less-than-ideal patient-care environments.
“In hospitals, we don’t normally pick up and transport equipment. We also don’t normally work in pressurized environments or in situations where patients and medical equipment are bouncing around in a cabin,” Bond said. “Blood pressures and heart rates tend to fluctuate in the air, too.”
“We don’t have access to the same medical equipment and resources found in hospitals (while in flight), so we learn ways to adapt,” Cody added. “These are just some of the areas that must be considered.”
Sometimes, critical-care teams get surprised. On one occasion, team members expected to pick up two patients. Instead, “we were greeted with eight critical patients, 14 ambulatory and three doctors from a foreign country,” Cody said. “It can make things interesting.”
At other times, missions can be high profile. In September, a critical-care team here transported two United Nations bombing victims from Iraq. Regardless of the mission, team members said they feel a loss when the job is done.
“We never seem to hear how our patients are doing after we’ve passed them to the next medical provider,” Bond said. “We try and help the process by presenting our patients with (team) coins. We want them to keep in touch, and it’s our way of thanking them for the work they’ve done. We’re proud of them!”
Furthermore, if a patient’s situation warrants Purple Heart consideration, team members often take initiative and assist with the nomination process.
The critical-care teams have treated victims of bullet and shrapnel wounds, burns, respiratory infections, vehicle accidents and more. Thankfully, business is now slow.
“During the war, we were flying daily,” Cody said.
“Now we fly once or twice a week,” said Bond, who added that reduced flying hours is not necessarily a bad thing.
“We want to take great care of our patients from the time we pick them up to the time we drop them off,” she said. “But we consider any day we don’t fly a good day because it means our services weren’t needed.”
“Our teams are very unique in what they do,” Cody said, “and because of this, they’re very important to what’s going on with the war on terrorism.”