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Aeromedical evacuation: care in the air

  • Published
  • By Maj. Nicole David
  • 379th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
There is nothing typical about a day in the life of an aeromedical evacuation team. Missions are tasked as needed ranging from minor sick or wounded service members to warriors requiring critical care. So when military members of all services need medical attention in the Central Command area of responsibility, the 379th Expeditionary Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron springs into action, providing medical attention while transporting the sick and wounded, living up to their motto, "Airlifting Wounded Warriors."

The heart of the aeromedical evacuation system dates back to the Korean War, when air transport for medical evacuation was first studied. By the end of 1950, air transport became the standard procedure for moving wounded and sick troops, increasing survival rates.

Today, throughout Operation Enduring Freedom, there have been many AE missions that have saved lives due to the speed of the current AE system, but ultimately it is a good sign when it is "slow" in the AE world. While critical care missions are significantly fewer, most missions lately have been minor injuries or mental health related. Recently a 379th EAES crew was tasked with returning a wounded patient to duty and picking up two other patients needing heightened care. However, the AE mission isn't successful without the behind the scene planning that goes into it.

"Once the mission tasking comes from the Combined Air Operations Center, or CAOC, the mission planning phase is conducted by the Aeromedical Evacuation Operations Team," explains Master Sgt. William Goodman, AEOT NCO in charge, deployed from McDill Air Force Base, Fla. and a native of Apopka, Fla.

The AEOT is responsible for crew management in terms of crew rest cycles and taskings, so they will initiate the mission by alerting the on-call crew. From that point, the crew has one hour to report and go through the steps necessary to prepare for the mission. The AEOT helps the crew move efficiently through these steps.

The standard crew consists of two nurses and three medical technicians and their first step upon reporting is receiving an intelligence briefing on the details of the mission - the diagnoses of the patients, which aircraft they will be configuring, and any other pertinent information needed for the mission. Once they complete that, they receive their aircrew flight equipment. Next, the crew sits down and goes through their checklists, initiated by the medical crew director.

"We go through standard operating procedures and assign tasks so that if we have a cardiac arrest, the team is on the same page, for example who is responsible for chest compressions, who has airway," said Capt. David Steiner, a nurse deployed from the Wyoming Air National Guard and native of Fort Collins, Colo.

They will also review their non-medical tasks on the aircraft such as who is responsible for baggage, weapons and radios. Finally, they review aircraft egress and emergency procedures.

Now it's time to go to the warehouse and load up the medical equipment kits. This is where the charge medical technician duties come into play.

"I direct the team as to how we will configure the litters and equipment on the aircraft and ensure equipment is set up properly and working," explained Staff Sgt. Molly Farrand, deployed from the Wyoming Air National Guard and native of Fort Collins, Colo.

The AE crews bring equipment for any and all types of medical care, regardless of what the patients require for the specific mission. They must be prepared for anything so their emergency equipment litters consists of a cardiac monitor, airway bag, IV pump, ventilator, medications, dressings - basically a mobile emergency room. The configuration of this equipment varies depending on the aircraft.

"The beauty of the AE mission is the versatility; we can operate from a C-130, C-17, KC-135, or C-21," said Farrand. Almost unanimously the crew said the C-130 was their favorite though because it is a work horse, while the C-17 is the Cadillac. Once airborne, taking care of patients becomes the priority.

According to Capt. Dean Dore, a nurse from Scott Air Force Base and a Thibodaux, La. native, it is important to bring human touch on the aircraft. "Bedside manner in the air is just as important. Everyone has a story and our patients are counting on us to care."

Life-saving care is about being in the right place at the right time and that is always the goal of aeromedical evacuation. Whether the mission is transport from the combat zone to a combat support hospital, like the one on Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, or to an overseas or U.S. medical facility for long term care, AE crews are dedicated to their patients.

"As far as I am concerned, we are taking care of the real heroes and it is truly a rewarding experience," said Steiner.