Air Force 'angels' rescue injured Haitians
By SOF Editor on Tue, 01/26/2010 - 11:28am
"Don't leave me," said a young Haitian girl, her arms and head bandaged after being badly burned. She reached out to a nearby nurse, "Am I going to die?" "No, not today. Don't you worry," the nurse said. The girl settled back onto her litter. Farther down the row of litters a Haitian man was chanting, his breath fogging the oxygen mask over his mouth in urgent gasps. The man, a recent amputee, waved his remaining arm in the air like a preacher before a congregation. Army Sergeant 1st Class Roland Laforest, a native of Haiti, was leaning over him, softly singing a lullaby in his native tongue. "He was having flashbacks of the earthquake," Sergeant Laforest said. "He was praying, 'Christ be with us.'" Meanwhile Dr. Maggie Brewinski, a pediatrician with the U.S. Agency for International Development, was checking the vitals of two 8-day-old twins who were born 10-weeks premature, her face bathed in the blue light of the incubators. "Probably this flight is saving their lives," Doctor Brewinski said, referring to her two infant patients. "I doubt they would have survived." It was a scene familiar to those on the ground in Haiti since the earthquake Jan. 12. Critical-care charge nurses flowed back and forth between aisles of litters, their eyes fixed on electrocardiogram screens. Doctors pored over charts and assessed patients while family members waited at their side, silent prayers rising into the darkness. However, they weren't on the ground in Haiti. The patients, doctors, nurses, medical equipment and attending family members were 30,000 feet in the air in the cargo bay of an Air Force C-130 Hercules. The mission, aeromedical evacuation, is one of the three core capabilities of the Air Force's Air Mobility Command and has been used with increasing regularity as a part of Operation Unified Response to move patients from austere locations in Haiti to hospitals and trauma centers in the U. S. This particular air evacuation mission, "was the most complex AE I've ever done," said Lt. Col. David Rodberg, the medical crew director of the 94th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron. "Unlike in a combat situation with standard gunshot wounds and blast injuries, we are dealing with crush injuries. On this flight we had depressed-skull fractures, burns, spinal cord injuries, amputations, not to mention neo-natal care." "I'm so proud to be a part of this mission," Colonel Rodberg said. "My team was outstanding. The crew up front, flying the plane, was wonderful, one of the best we've ever had." In all, the crew,led by Capt. Christopher Paxton, the aircraft commander assigned to the 39th Airlift Squadron, transported 18 urgent-care patients, four critical-care patients, 26 attending family members and two Air Force critical care air transport teams. In less than six hours from the time the first patient was brought onboard in Haiti, all four critical-care patients were ready to be offloaded at Miami International Airport to awaiting emergency medical teams. As the light of early dawn seeped into the cargo bay, the last of the critical-care patients had been loaded into an ambulance and the crew began preparations for the short flight to the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. There the remaining passengers, including former Sen. John Edwards, who accompanied the Haitians from a clinic on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince onto the aeromedical evacuation flight, were taken to hospitals in Broward and Miami-Dade counties in Florida. "Everyone was terrific," said Senator Edwards speaking of his experience on the aeromedical evacuation mission. "(Without this mission) there's no way they would have survived." "I'm really proud my country can offer this service to the people of Haiti," Doctor Brewinski said, "and feel privileged to be a part." "It was a difficult mission," said Capt. Jeffrey Wilson, an aeromedical evacuation team member assigned to the 94th AES. "There was a lot going on, on the ground and up in the air, but we remained calm and got these people the care they needed." As a Haitian woman was being helped down the aircraft ramp she turned toward the crew. "Thank you," she said. "You are angels."