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From E.R. to Black Hawk helicopter, Air Force nurse 'returns' to Army

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Leisa Grant
  • Air Force Central Command Public Affairs
Blood spurts from a gaping wound. Broken bones pierce through skin. Screaming, shock, chaos - some things never change for emergency medical personnel.

But, for Air Force Maj. Sandra Nestor, a critical care nurse deployed with the 2-149 General Aviation Support Battalion, a typical day is very different from the ER she works in at her homestation, Langley Air Force Base, Va. She can often be found scrambling more than 200 yards to an aircraft, rotary blades whipping up dust in every direction, battling language barriers with coalition forces and working with limited medical supplies.

As a member of a medical evacuation team, Nestor is called upon for missions along side the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter crews that launch on a moment's notice when U.S. and coalition forces become injured in the field.

"I'm an extra set of hands in the back of the aircraft," Nestor said.

An extra set of hands at times, maybe. But, she brings a whole new capability to the missions.

The Department of Defense did a study of patients who died in theater and found there was a percentage of casualties who had survivable injuries and would have had a higher chance of survival had critical care transport been available.

As a result of the studies, a request for forces was submitted to Central Command in 2009 for all services to support the En Route Critical Care mission, said Army Lt. Col. Kimberlie Biever, director of the En Route Critical Care mission under Task Force Medical Afghanistan.

"The Air Force sent their first critical care evacuation team into theater in 2011 to support this mission, which had solely been supported by Army nurses since 2010," Biever said.

Nestor's years of nursing experience make her a vital asset during these critical care transports in particular, especially when it comes to lifesaving measures involving patients' airways and bleeding during point-of-injury missions.

Nestor, a member of the fourth Air Force TCCT in theater, acknowledges the importance of her role, but remains grounded when working with her Army medical evacuation crews.

"The medic is always in charge in the back of the aircraft," she said. The medic is also an enlisted Soldier.

Everyone works as a team to ensure not only the safety of their patients, but of the crews as well. Working out of a moving "hospital" has its challenges, especially to a nurse who has worked in facilities for most of her career.

"It's a lot different," Nestor said when comparing her home station environment to her deployed environment. "You have an entire team of people. You have resources throughout the hospital. If you need lab support or someone to come down and take X-rays. In the back of the aircraft, it is just you and the medic and the crew chief."

The crews she works with are from Army National Guard units out of Oklahoma and Texas. For some services, working with another service while deployed can create an interesting dynamic. For Nestor, this isn't her first time with the Army. In fact, she has had about equal time with the Army as with the Air Force.

"I was in the Army Reserve, out of high school, as a licensed practical nurse," she said.

Nestor's medical training required her to be on active duty for 1.5 years and it was there where she started to make decisions that would ultimately land her the job of jumping on and off helicopters up to four times a day.

"I did well in school and my instructors encouraged me to get my bachelor in science of nursing degree," she said. "I didn't have any money for college, so they told me about a great Army scholarship program called the [Reserve Officers' Training Corps]."

She joined the Army ROTC program and upon graduation went directly on active duty in the Army Nurse Corps for 7.5 years, where she met her husband, who has since retired as a Chief Warrant Officer 5 Kiowa scout pilot.

"I had a great time with the Army," she said, but added that it was difficult for her and her husband to be stationed together. Nestor decided to leave military service to raise a family with her husband because she said she did not want to be a geographically separated family.

After a five year break in service, she developed a yearning to return to military nursing. And, it was her husband who suggested the Air Force.

With a strong Army medical background and some familiarity with aviation, Nestor likens her joint medical world to aviation - she just happens to be a part of both while deployed.

"Like aviation, we have to work as a team to take care of the patients," she said. "So, I work closely with everyone and learn from them, whether they are the doctors or the medics. We learn from each other."

Regardless of service, the medical corps really has a single mission.

"For most of us, we work together in our hospitals back in the U.S. and we work
together when we deploy," Bieber said. "We are all health care professionals with the
mission of caring for injured and ill warriors. Because of this commonality, we come together well, figure out each others operational languages and focus on caring for patients and saving lives."